Twenty years ago, the American political psychologist Robert E. Lane (1917 – 2017) published The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000). In it, he showed that Westerners (and Americans in particular) were increasingly unhappy with themselves despite their still increasing material prosperity and were more and more suffering from loneliness. In the preceding decades all developed market democracies had experienced a sharp increase in clinical depression, almost everywhere there had been a rise in distrust in other people and in social institutions, a decline in the belief that the fate of the average person was improving, and a tragic erosion of family solidarity and of warm, intimate relationships between friends.
One of the causes Lane identified, was the false assumptions and preferences spread by market liberalism about the conditions for a happy existence. The long-term psychological, social and political consequences of this have actually only become more pronounced in recent years. Manifestations of this are the rise of populist movements, opioid addictions and loneliness (until recently seen as one of the most important public ailments). This is another reason why it is enlightening to take Lane’s insights to heart once again. The psychological consequences of the Corona pandemic and the measures to constrain it, are similarly made clearer by his work.
In 2000 I interviewed Lane extensively for the Dutch magazine Facta. This interview is included below. First, I give an overview of some of his most important insights.
Robert Lane is the author of numerous groundbreaking publications, including Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does (1962) and The Market Experience (1991). Along with Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, he made the Political Science Department at Yale University one of the finest in the world from the late 1940s onward. Whereas Dahl was the political scientist pur sang and Lindblom the political economist and policy theorist, for Lane the central focus has always been the individual: what are his views, attitudes and behaviors in politics, under what factors did they come about, and what social structures contribute most to his well-being? In doing so, Lane was one of the few political scientists who has always made very extensive use of empirical findings from other human sciences, particularly psychology, sociology, and biology. Great is his exasperation with political theorists and political philosophers who construct detailed, abstract theories about the Good Life and the Good Society without ever taking note of the much available research on the actual functioning of people and society.
1 A Desert of Loneliness
The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies is the product of a decade of diligent work (Lane spent even seventeen years on The Market Experience). Relying on an enormous amount of empirical research that is directed at the reader like machine gun fire, he shows that Westerners are doing worse and worse, despite their still increasing material prosperity. In the last decades of the twentieth century, all Western democracies experienced a sharp increase in depression and other mental illnesses, and in distrust in other people and in social institutions. Everywhere, pessimism about the future increased and social and family cohesion eroded. According to Lane, there was “a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solidary family life. (2000: 9) As a result of this lack of social support, people were increasingly suffering from loneliness and became much more vulnerable to life’s setbacks, such as unemployment, illness, stress, disappointments with their children, unfulfilled wishes. A general uneasiness or anxiety is the result.
Lane sought an important cause of this malaise in the free market. Free markets are usually justified on the grounds that they optimize people’s well-being or ‘utility’. According to Lane, the reason why they fail to do so in developed economies is that all those things that really contribute to this well-being are ‘market externalities’. It is mainly other people who make us happy: their affection, appreciation and affirmation have the greatest impact on our mood and these goods cannot be bought anywhere. Of course, people need material resources, but once a minimum has been provided, and this minimum has been passed in Western countries decades ago, then their importance quickly diminishes. In wealthy societies, Lane writes, “for people above the poverty line, more money, as compared with friendship and community esteem, a loving spouse and affectionate children, quickly loses its power to make people happy” (2000: 7). To create more happiness, therefore, the emphasis in our society will have to shift from income to, what Lane summarizes with the term, ‘companionship’.
In addition to relief from depression and unhappiness, there are other gains from sacrificing income for valuable relationships. Research cited by Lane shows that when people are happy in their own skin, it benefits their creativity, problem-solving abilities, cooperativeness, generosity, health and self-fulfillment. Happy people make friends more easily and friends make people happier. They also have fewer ethnic prejudices and are more positive about democratic governance. Dissatisfied and depressed people, on the other hand, end up in a downward spiral: they have a negative self-image, a lack of self-confidence and autonomous behavior, poor study and job performance, lose the sense of proportion, get into fights with family members and colleagues, are bad parents, et cetera. The personal, but also the social costs of these people are enormous: ‘they drain the resources of the societies in which they live’, writes Lane (2000: 330). Market liberal society, Lane acknowledges, once brought us a deliverance from poverty and, related to that initially, happiness. Since then, in a monotonous repetition of a once liberating theme, this order offers its citizens only more of the same. It is ingrained in this order, as before in other great civilizations. We are now suffering from unhappiness and loneliness in a social desert with an abundance of material wealth. The “end of history,” according to Lane, is therefore not a glorious final victory of market liberalism; rather, it is the slow death of a culture that seems incapable of renewing itself and adapting to changed circumstances (2000: 10).
2 Political malaise
The uneasiness, as already evident from the above, does not only concern personal well-being. According to Lane, the malaise was also increasing in other spheres that were obviously related to this. This applied first and foremost to the political sphere. For example, more and more people believed that public officials were moved only by self-interest and had absolutely no interest in the fate of the average citizen (2000: 24-30). They felt left out. In this regard, Louis Harris presented salient survey results in his Inside America (1987) (cited by Lane 2000: 29). In 1966, nine percent of respondents could agree with the thesis “I feel left out of things going on around me. This percentage had increased to thirty-seven by 1986. In 1966, twenty-six percent endorsed the statement ‘the people running the country don’t really care what happens to me’. Fifty-five percent agreed with this in 1986. The percentage of those who agreed with “What I think doesn’t matter any more” increased from thirty-six to sixty between 1966 and 1986. People, Lane concluded, increasingly feel powerless in and alienated from the political community of which they are a part.
The latest trends are obviously reflected in ideas about and participation in social and political institutions. The percentage of Americans who believed that the government can be trusted “most of the time,” for example, fell from about sixty to twenty-five percent between 1958 and 1992 (2000: 199). Trends in other Western countries were similar (2000: 201). In 1952, to the statement “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does,” about thirty percent responded in agreement. Over forty years later, the majority held this view, this after a very gradual development that seemed independent of the change of governments (2000: 203-4). In response to the question, “Do you think the government in Washington is run for the benefit of a few big interests or for the benefit of all?” in 1964, forty-five percent chose “a few big interests. In 1992, more than eighty percent believed in the latter (2000: 205-6).
The main reasons why people still bother to cast their votes today are the admittedly declining but still existing feelings of citizenship, as well as the dormant loyalties to parties, ethnicities, political symbols and individuals. Forms of political participation that require more time, energy and other resources now lack the necessary faith in democracy. Throughout the Western world, one therefore sees sharply declining membership of political parties, growing difficulties in recruiting suitable candidates for administrative and political positions, and a declining willingness to engage in civil society activities.
How would you describe our present condition? How are we doing?
Especially in the United States, research findings on well-being are not very encouraging. When people are asked whether, all things considered, they consider their lives to be happy or unhappy at a given moment, fewer and fewer people say they are happy, and this trend has been going on for decades in the United States – Europe is doing better. Consistent with this, Americans are expressing less and less satisfaction with their marriage, job, financial situation and place of residence. Loneliness has become a common condition. At the same time, the malaise is growing in other areas: in the last thirty years, more and more people have claimed that others cannot be trusted, that the condition of ordinary people is constantly deteriorating, and that public officials are motivated only by their own self-interest and have absolutely no concern for the average citizen. Contemporary research also seems to confirm the thesis of people like Simmel, Fromm and Wirth that relationships in modern society are characterized by superficiality and instrumentalism. More and more people therefore regularly report being lonely and missing ‘warmth’ and ‘intimacy’.
To what extent are experiences of happiness and loneliness culturally determined?
Contrary to what cultural relativists would like to believe, people have an awful lot in common. Therefore, the conditions of their well-being show great similarity worldwide. For example, cross-cultural research generally indicates that satisfaction with family life and with one’s relationships with friends are among the most important explanations of happiness and the absence of depression. They are more important than satisfaction with living standards, work, religious life, or “the pleasure one has”. Particularly having a depression – I am not talking about a dejected mood – is not a purely cultural product. There is a great cross-cultural agreement among psychologists about the criteria for it. It includes prolonged and concurrent symptoms such as loss or excess of appetite, insomnia, chronic fatigue, loss of sexual desire, feelings of inadequacy or guilt, lack of concentration, indecision, and recurring thoughts of death or suicide. Research shows that in all developed market democracies, clinical depression is increasing in numbers and frequency, especially among the young. In some countries, people born after 1955 are three times more likely to have a depression in their life than their grandparents. We could now speak of an epidemic.
How important is money? Does money make you happy?
Research in all developed countries shows that income and well-being are no longer related. This is still true for underdeveloped countries. The best way to promote well-being here is to increase national income. But for us, survival is no longer the most important issue. In creating this situation, economic science has played a positive role. But today its principles and insights have lost much of their relevance. Economists have not realized that the priorities in developed countries have slowly but surely changed from survival to well-being. They remain focused on things that hardly matter anymore. The number of friends someone has is a much better indicator than the number of dollars he owns.
What is the role of market democracies? To what extent do they cause unhappiness?
The market hurts people mainly because it diverts attention from the things that really contribute to a happy existence. People who are preoccupied with material things, we know from research, are not very happy and socially they are often bad company: “they have something else on their mind.” By dominating culture, markets impoverish people’s lives. They tempt people to make trade-offs that do not contribute to their well-being, such as income rather than leisure or work that is substantively satisfying. Democracies do not actually harm people, but they are also unhelpful in promoting their well-being because they mainly confirm existing economistic preferences and trends: like the market, they trust that people know exactly what is good for them, whereas we know from psychological research that this is not always the case, quite the contrary.
To what extent do you feel connected to the social critics of the 1960s? In Your critique of materialism, for example, you seem to address a similar theme.
I absolutely do not want to be associated with the counter culture. This is a narcissistic, self-centered movement in which self-fulfillment, with emphasis on self (“I do my thing” and “look at me”), is central, whereas I am talking about finding happiness in interpersonal, solidary relationships. In addition, my inspiration comes entirely from a long academic tradition that attempts to carefully analyze the conditions of human well-being and human fulfillment. Of course, this does not apply to the counter culture – that was at best a social movement, mainly leading to loneliness.
As a matter of fact, I have always had a great distrust of its representatives. They mainly evoked irritation in me. In the sixties I thought that was because I was getting old. Now I know better. My suspicion that this was mainly about self-centeredness has been confirmed by the rapid way in which many of those involved have found their way up and renounced their ideals. Nor am I an unconditional advocate of small communities, in the tradition of the communitarian thinking of Bellah and Etzioni, for example. I am not a communitarian. When you study small communities in practice it turns out that they can be very narrow-minded, intolerant, full of ethnic prejudice. I want to find out what exactly contributes to human well-being and I don’t think this involves specific settings, small orderly communities or living units for example. There are several studies that suggest that people, especially better-off people, can fulfill more of the conditions that contribute to their well-being – warm, supportive relationships – in the big city than in small villages.
Why don’t people do something about their unhappiness?
Such a question is based on the notion of autonomous personalities. However, people are extremely vulnerable to the pressure of their environment, to social reality. It is like asking a Westerner if she would not rather have been a Buddhist. People do not choose, they are born into something and then deeply socialized into the existing culture. When this culture tells them that acquiring more income or that a certain lifestyle that can only be bought with this income will make them happier, they believe it, even though all the existing research shows that this is not the case. The American dream consists of acquiring more and more material possessions and the status that can be derived from them. An attempt must be made to help people out of this misplaced dream, without using coercion. You rightly call this an emancipation dilemma.
How optimistic are you about the possibilities for this?
It is very difficult to change an existing culture. Intellectuals should play a role in this. The role of the intellectual, of the rebel and the artist, is to offer alternatives. In addition, something needs to change in our sciences. Economists need to develop better measures of well-being or utility based on reality and not on an a priori, and then they need to use their analytical apparatus to make recommendations that actually promote human flourishing. Political theorists need to moralize less abstractly and pay more attention to something as trivial as human well-being. Their theories can then inspire politicians to look more closely at the effects of policies on how people are doing. And psychologists, biologists and neurologists should contribute to our knowledge of how institutions affect our well-being.
There is also already a movement against the prevailing culture. You can find the representatives in numerous places. Also remember that when something is well liked, people then don’t want to part with it. When people take a little more free time, when they pay a little more attention to their friends and family, when they pay a little more attention to the intrinsic satisfactions of their work, then this has an immediate reward and therefore there is a chance that this trade-off will reinforce itself and spread. We are not talking here about a terrible medicine that will only have a positive effect in the long run. This medicine tastes good and is even addictive. I hope.
In what ways can academics contribute?
It is difficult for American academics, more than for their European counterparts, to reach a large audience and explain to people, for example, that they are pursuing something that we already know will not make them happier. Television has destroyed an awful lot with regard to public debate and, for that matter, in social relations. Reaching a wider audience is also explicitly discouraged by the existing publication culture at universities. Pieces for a general audience don’t count and are even used against you. However, the influence of scientific findings is also slowly seeping through academic education, through government advisory bodies, and we now have the Internet, which is a much more interactive medium than television. But it’s true: in America, academics are even more isolated from society than in Europe. It’s an uphill battle.
 Facta: Sociaal-Wetenschappelijk Magazine (Vol.8, No.5, 2000). I have discussed Lane’s work at greater length in Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge (2011: 330-5) and in ‘Unhappily trapped in the Emancipation-dilemma’ (2004). Lane responded to the latter article with ‘The limited triumph of functional rationality: response to Blokland’ (2004).
 These trends have continued since then. Putnam, Pharr, and Dalton already wrote in the introduction to Disaffected Democracies, “By almost any measure, political alienation has soared over the last three decades” (2000: 9). This, they also showed, was not an exclusively American phenomenon, but could be observed in almost all Western countries. Western countries. See also Putnam’s Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society (2002). In recent years, this trend has continued to develop. Populism did not come suddenly.
 A similar decline in trust can be observed with respect to corporations and news media. It is therefore by no means the case that when public trust in the collective sector declines, one can conclude – as so many politicians have done in recent decades – that trust in the private sector increases proportionally. Distrust in both sectors develops in parallel. Lane thinks that “business and political negativity move together because people only know that they are unhappy, not why” (2000: 202).
 In his The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001) Andrew Solomon presented correspondingly alarming statistics: “Twenty years ago, about 1.5 percent of the population had depression that required treatment; now it’s 5 percent; and as many as 10 percent of all Americans now living can expect to have a major depressive episode during their life. About 50 percent will experience some symptoms of depression… Incidents of depression are increasing across the developed world, particularly in children. Depression is occurring in younger people, making its first appearance when its victims are about twenty-six, ten years younger than a generation ago; bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive illness, sets in even earlier. Things are getting worse” (2001: 25-6). As to the explanation of this trend, Solomon has few doubts: “The climbing rates of depression are without question the consequence of modernity. The pace of life, the technological chaos of it, the alienation of people from one another, the breakdown of traditional family structures, the loneliness that is endemic, the failure of systems of belief (religious, moral, political, social – anything that seemed once to give meaning and direction to life) have been catastrophic” (2001: 31-2).
Blokland, Hans. 2000. Robert E. Lane en de achterhaaldheid van het marktliberalisme. Facta: Sociaal-Wetenschappelijk Magazine. Vol.8, No.5, pp.8-13.
Blokland, Hans. 2003. Unhappily trapped in the emancipation-dilemma.The Good Society. Vol.12, No.2, pp. 58-62.
Blokland, Hans. 2011. Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge. London and New York: Routledge. 2016.
Lane, Robert E. Lane. 1962. Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.
Lane, Robert E. 1991. The Market Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lane, Robert. E. 2000. The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Lane, Robert E. 2004. The limited triumph of functional rationality: response to Blokland. The Good Society. Vol.12, No.2, pp. 63-9.
Pharr, Susan and Putnam, Robert D. (eds.) 2000. Disaffected Democracies: What’s troubling the Trilateral Countries? Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Putnam, Robert D. (ed.) 2002. Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Solomon, Andrew. 2001. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. New York: Simon & Schuster.