- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2000

Social psychologist David G. Myers has sifted the data on U.S. society and found a paradox. On one hand, American society offers the greatest opportunities and affluence ever.

But on the other hand, American culture has become a "crime factory" as its rate of violent crime has quadrupled since the 1960s.

The Hope College professor, who writes popular college textbooks on psychology and social psychology, sums up America's problems in one sentence: "It's not the economy, stupid, it's the culture," parroting a slogan coined by Democratic political consultant James Carville in 1992.

"Despite increasing affluence, Americans paradoxically [are] becoming more miserable," he writes in his new book, "The American Paradox; Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty." The book, which he calls "an overall weather report on the nation since the 1960s," also puts a new spin on the conventional wisdom that Gen X'ers are the first generation to do worse economically than its parents.

He has rephrased that to "worse psychologically."

That, he says, is the No. 1 American paradox: The nation has more wealth, health, comfort and freedom than ever, but also ranks highest among modern societies for unhappiness, isolation and broken families.

"We have air conditioning now … we didn't have it back in the 1960s," Mr. Myers said in an interview. "It's really terrific. We are living longer, and we have more liberty. We are also considerably more likely to be clinically depressed."

This should not be surprising, he says. The nation's media has gotten coarser, America's sexual fixations more public and more intense, its materialistic excess more widespread and its individualism unrivaled in the world.

"The magnitude of these trends is just amazing," Mr. Myers says.

He is not the first to cite this less glowing side of American culture. His predecessors have been called scolds, and portrayed in magazines such as Newsweek as the new "virtuecrats."

It began with Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissism" in 1979, said to have influenced President Carter's upbraiding of the nation as selfish in his "malaise" speech.

Then came the 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," in which a federally commissioned blue-ribbon panel warned of the "rising tide of mediocrity" in the nation's schools and colleges.

In 1993, former Secretary of Education William Bennett inaugurated the annual and generally grim "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators."

Over 30 years, illegitimate births increased 400 percent, divorce rates quadrupled, teen-age suicide rose 200 percent and the average SAT score dropped 80 points.

Then, in 1996, retiring Sen. Sam Nunn, Georgia Democrat, established the National Commission on Civic Renewal to analyze civic life and well-being as the "Nation at Risk" report had plumbed education.

While Mr. Myers' book compiles much of the data handed out in dribs and drabs for the past few decades, it is among the first to argue the public finally is taking such data seriously.

People are organizing to fight "the social recession," he said.

"To counter radical individualism and cultural corrosion, a new, inclusive social renewal movement is emerging," the book says, arguing that it draws the best from the liberals and conservatives.

An optimist, Mr. Myers argues that the culture's "prospects for renewal are indeed brightening." But as a scientist, he is wary of partisan posturing or emotional appeals on such topics.

"I am not much persuaded by anecdotes, testimonials, or inspirational pronouncements," he said. "My concern, then, is less with whether I am being a good liberal or conservative than with assembling an accurate picture of reality."

Political candidates often try to win office by arguing life is better or worse for voters, but Mr. Myers said such sweeping statements are impossible.

"It depends upon the topic," he said. While society has improved in economics and health, for example, it has declined in its moral life.

He also takes a more complex approach to looking for problems and solutions on matters such as crime or illegitimacy.

While some argue that crime is caused by poverty, racial background or alcohol use, he said new cultural factors must be involved, making America a "crime factory" today when it was not so before the 1960s.

Similarly, while some tie illegitimacy to women on welfare, he said there also is contrary data such as states with high welfare rates having lower illegitimacy. Teen pregnancies, he reports, often begin when judgment is impaired by alcohol.

"Clearly," he said, "cultural and psychological forces other than welfare incentives are at work."

In "American Paradox," Mr. Myers builds his case on a defining feature of the 1960s the sexual revolution and the decline in marriage. He links these to poverty and dislocation, which provide openings for violence.

He then moves to the paradox of how wealth does not guarantee well-being and how the growing gap between rich and poor has negatively affected culture. Into these settings has come a "corrosive media."

The net result is not an economic recession, but a "social recession," in which decency and community cooperation break down.

Mr. Myers calls himself a "kindred spirit" with the communitarian movement, which melds liberal and conservative ideas.

As a teacher at Hope College, a liberal arts school in Holland, Mich., founded by the Reformed Church in America, he first became known for writing on Christian beliefs and the science of psychology.

His four textbooks, two of them titled simply "Psychology" and "Social Psychology," are widely used in colleges. He happily associates himself with "positive psychology," which broke from the trade's historic emphasis on pathologies to discover what leads to human fulfillment.

He packaged that complex answer in a 1993 book, "The Pursuit of Happiness."

Money can buy happiness, he said, but only under circumstances such as poverty or need. Otherwise, people get used to their next income level and find new discontents.

"If you're thinking you will be more happy having more and more, that is very doubtful," he said in the interview. "It's not the funds, but the friends and faith that make happiness."

Loss of wealth, he added, can be adapted to by people who base their happiness in many aspects of life.

"I'm not saying money is bad," Mr. Myers says. What is definitely good, however, is a stable two-parent family, a group affiliation, and a certain amount of hope, usually supplied by religion.

Textbook sales and other royalties show that Mr. Myers, by doing good, also has done well. He and his wife have formed the David and Carol Myers Foundation to direct those gains to others.

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