by Peter N. Stearns
New York University Press, 2012, 269 pp., $35
Contrary to what you may think while surveying the vast cornucopia of our vibrant consumer landscape—fleece Snuggies, Hot Pockets, doggie umbrellas, Gulf Stream jets, Blazin’ Jalapeño Doritos—modernity has not turned out to be quite as awesome as some early optimists had hoped. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff to buy, use up, and buy again, but people in modern industrialized societies have higher rates of depression and dissatisfaction than do those in premodern societies, in places like Ghana or Bangladesh. Indeed, as wealth has increased in the West, general happiness (admittedly a slippery mood to quantify) has declined proportionately.
This may be no causal relationship. Perhaps modernity and human happiness don’t actually have much to do with each another at all—except that in modernity you’re expected to be, well, happy. This uneasy situation, bracketed by the amorphousness of what “happy” and “modern” actually mean in variable social contexts, is what George Mason University historian Peter N. Stearns has aptly called modernity’s “happiness imperative.”
Stearns’s latest book, Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society, takes the reader through the past two centuries of modern change, delving into the ways in which some eternal human practices—eating, sex, childrearing, death—have been transformed from their premodern precursors. Since the end of the 19th century, Stearns explains, residents of industrialized nations have lived longer lives, enjoyed better health, more education, better working conditions, more recreational sex, fewer children and more leisure time. American income doubled between 1954 and 2004. On the whole, modernity has been kind to many people, and despite some fashionable debates over its “post-” status over the past four decades, “modernity has not failed, and it is not being rejected.” So then why are so many people dissatisfied?
It’s hardly a new question. Deuteronomy 16:15 commands its believing readers to be “very happy” at the time of the autumn harvest; even ancient scholars were perplexed about how God could command human happiness. Thirty years ago, Robert Nisbet made the following observation, not directly about happiness but about the conditions conducive to it:
What we know least about as the result of thousands of years of civilized history is affluence. We are the first affluent state, politically, psychologically and sociologically. And there is something about affluence that does not seem to produce community. Poverty will produce community—a sense of spirit, of organization, or working together. Affluence doesn’t seem to.1
And books about the happiness paradox have proliferated...