Resolving the American Paradox

Maybe you, too, received the pass-along e-mail about the “paradox of our time”: We have “bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences but less time, steep profits and shallow relationships. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life; we’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul.”

Indeed, since 1960, we have soared. New drugs shrink our tumors and enlarge our sexual potency. Women and minorities have more rights. Average real income has doubled, so we own twice the cars, eat out two and a half times as often, and pay less (in real terms) for our milk and hamburgers. We’ve achieved the old American dream: life, liberty, and the purchase of happiness.

Yet, paradoxically, we are a bit less likely to say we’re “very happy.” We are more often seriously depressed. And we are only now beginning to emerge from a serious social recession: doubled divorce, tripled teen suicide, quadrupled juvenile violence, quintupled prison population, and sextupled proportion of babies born to unmarried parents. We are also, as Robert Putnam massively documents, more often Bowling Alone (and voting, visiting, entertaining, carpooling, trusting, joining, meeting, neighboring, and giving proportionately less). The National Commission on Civic Renewal combined 22 such social trends to create its “Index of National of Civic Health,” which plunged southward from 1960 to the mid 1990s, even as human rights and prosperity were ascending. The net result, as Al Gore discerned in announcing his presidential candidacy, is growing “spiritual hunger.”

One response to this hunger comes from the scholars and civic leaders-“women and men, liberals and conservatives”-who signed a just-released statement on “The Marriage Movement” ( This is not a nostalgia movement that aims to stuff Jeannie back in the bottle and gays and lesbians back in the closet. Nor does it argue that everyone should marry and no one divorce. Rather, it documents the price Americans pay for the post-1960 collapse of marriage, as the population of unmarried adults leapt from 25 to 41 percent and the proportion of children not living with two parents nearly tripled, from 12 to 32 percent.

But isn’t it better to replace unhappy marriages with happier ones? Here comes another paradox: If divorce ends unhappy marriages, then shouldn’t the remaining marriages be happier? Yet today, though freer to escape bad marriages, we are less satisfied with the marriages that we have. As new psychological research shows, people express greater satisfaction with irrevocable choices (like those made in an “all purchases final sale) than with reversible choices (refunds or exchanges allowed). When feeling bound to something or someone, we’re more likely to love it than when freer to contemplate alternatives.

Despite our occasional doubts, research shows that committed marriages are associated with health, happiness, and reduced poverty, and with better educated, healthier, and more successful children. New evidence indicates that marriage doesn’t just ride along with social, psychological, and economic well-being, it contributes to them. Ergo, say the “marriage movement” signers, government, schools, churches, counselors, and the media should make strengthening marriage a national priority.

This movement is but one facet of a blossoming social ecology movement that may become this decade’s counterpart to the civil rights, environmental, and women’s movements. The Center for the New American Dream challenges materialistic excess. The Communitarian Network urges balancing individualism with concern for communal well-being. The National Parenting Association encourages family-supportive corporations, workplaces, schools, and tax policies. The ecumenical Call to Renewal unites churches in efforts to “overcome poverty, dismantle racism, promote healthier families and supportive communities, and reassert the dignity of each human life.” The nonpartisan National Marriage Project aims to strengthen the state of our unions. In my own field, a fast-expanding “positive psychology” movement aims to advance human happiness, strengthen character, and promote civic health.

This broad, bipartisan movement affirms liberals’ concerns about income inequality and their support for family friendly workplaces and children in all family forms. It affirms conservatives’ indictment of toxic media models and their support for marriage and co-parenting. And it finds encouragement that teen suicide, violence, and pregnancy have begun to subside and (in contrast to the me-generation ahead of them) volunteerism among young Americans is now rising.

Do we not all, liberals and conservatives alike, wish to see children welcomed into families with loving mothers and fathers in a culture that nurtures families? that balances rights with responsibilities? that regards sexuality as life-uniting and love-renewing? that encourages spiritual awareness of a reality greater than self and of meaning, purpose, and hope?

Writing from a place called Hope, I take heart in this “great awakening.” Having ventured into space, bested communism, and achieved prosperity, Americans have now begun, once again, “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility [and] secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Reprinted from USA Today online edition, June 29, 2000. A slightly abbreviated version appeared in the Detroit Free Press, July 25, 2000. Permission is granted to reproduce or post this essay in its entirety.