In an Unequal America, We Buy Our Way to Happiness

We are living through another gilded age, but unlike the late 19th century, extremely high income inequality has failed to stoke popular fervor.

We are living through another gilded age, but unlike the late 19th century, extremely high income inequality has failed to stoke popular fervor. Yes, we have Elizabeth Warren, notable for her singularity, but a broader social movement has failed to coalesce. In 2013, for example, only 5 percent of Americans identified the poor or middle class as their most important concern.

So why we are unequal, but happy? Steven Quartz, professor of philosophy and neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology, says that emotion-laden consumerism has helped us achieve a baseline contentment, even if more objective standards of social justice fall short.

"Consumerism has expanded the lifestyles, niches, and brands that supply the statuses we seek."

More than ever, says Quartz, products available for purchase attach themselves to our values: If you care for the environment, buying a Prius makes you feel good; if luxury goods soothe you, designer handbags are priced for the masses; if you fancy yourself to be a free and creative thinker, a Mac will make you feel at home; and so on...

"The pursuit of 'the cool,' in our view, fundamentally altered the psychological motivations underlying our consumer choices."

During the 1960s, the American counterculture purposely inverted elite values, preferring James Dean's leather jacket to the business suit of advertising executives. But today, values are more diverse and keeping up with the Joneses often means out-cooling them — and there is no shortage of opportunity to purchase coolness.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
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Cornell engineers create artificial material with 3 key traits of life

An innovation may lead to lifelike self-reproducing and evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
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After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

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  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.