It all sounds so achingly obvious. Our houses are too big, our jobs are too far away and our neighbors are strangers.
It's no wonder the men and women of this generation are less happy than their parents.
Indeed, all the extra stuff we buy, the dozens of cable channels we sample and the entertainment gadgets we program to our micro-niche interests can't make us as happy as people in other parts of the world with far less.
That's the bleak but not hopeless vision offered by environmentalist Bill McKibben in his 2007 best-seller, "Deep Economy."
It's a message that has particular resonance today, with the economic slowdown forcing so many of us to focus on priorities.
The biggest question, of course, is why we don't change our ways? Do we really have no choice but to become prisoners of an economic and social culture destined to rob us of many of the simple joys of life?
McKibben offers hope. For starters, he argues that America and the world need to rid themselves of the grow-or-die mantra that has ruled economic life. It's a mind-set born in the second half of the 20th century, not a maxim of natural law.
Indeed, McKibben believes it's foolhardy to think we'll be able to "invent" new forms of resources endlessly. At some point, we will reach the Earth's natural limits.
Second, McKibben decries Americans' infatuation with what he calls hyper-individualism. Focusing on good ol' No. 1 has diluted the sense of community in America, far more than in Western Europe.
Taking part in a group, whether it's a college, a branch of the military or a house of worship, makes people feel more fulfilled, according to an array of studies.
A community like the Fredericksburg area offers plenty of group opportunities. But it's hard to join a community when you have to fight congestion to get to the nearest coffee shop, when you're too tired from a long commute to do much more than watch the tube, and when the pervasive voice of advertising proclaims that "it's all about you."
So what's to be done?
That's where McKibben, a scholar in residence at bucolic Vermont's Middlebury College, gets a little vague.
He warns against elitist solutions that penalize the poor. He's careful to set an optimistic tone. But he cautions that solutions are likely to be incremental.
McKibben predicts that a less-centralized approach to the economy, far from being an archaic throwback to a simpler time, has a rosy future. The new rush to locally grown produce and jobs within walking distance of residences could be a harbinger of the future.
The government could help, says McKibben, by cutting off subsidies to giant enterprises, like those that control farming.
But the real change will come when individuals reach a tipping point and decide to change their lifestyles.
That means getting serious about reducing Americans' greedy carbon footprint compared to other countries. That means taking a lower-paying job closer to home that offers more time with family and community. That means participating in groups that focus on the common good.
That's not going to happen, you say? Maybe. But remember: It might be the path to happiness.
Copyright 2008, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co.