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Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

Peter N. Stearns

(New York University Press; US: Apr 2012)

I’m writing this review on a state-of-the art laptop in a well air-conditioned room with a flat screen television. But am I any happier than someone who, years ago, drafted reviews on a manual typewriter, had a fan, and watched a black and white television with rabbit ears?


Probably not.


Want to know why?


Enter Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society by Peter N. Stearns who notes “in the West, food shortages are nearly eliminated, infant and maternal mortality has fallen dramatically, birth control is both readily available and effective, education levels are higher, and internal violence is significantly reduced. But are we really happy?”


An example in the introduction shows one reason why the answer may be no. After describing modernity as “double-edged”, Stearns relates: “Modern societies dramatically push back rates of mortality in children—allowing most families, for the first time in human history, to avoid the experience of a child’s death. Yet instead of enjoying the gain, modern parents often frantically track their children’s health and (particularly in the United States) surround them with annoying safety devices, making parenthood more complicated in the process.”  And this example exposes one of the main issues with modernity/progress and happiness—progress may solve some problems, but it often brings about a completely new set, as well. Add to this that Americans (and the book focuses on the US) don’t always seem to respond well (or appropriately) to progress, and it’s no wonder that happiness often proves elusive.


Stearns doesn’t just assume Americans are unhappy (or not as happy as they used to be, less happy than people living in other countries, etc.)—the first section of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed examines data that show the disconnect between modernity and “professed happiness”. After stating that “happiness polls are notoriously volatile, yielding inconsistent specific results”, Stearns takes readers through poll results and other statistical information about the current state of happiness in the United States. One of the conclusions—people in less ‘modern’ locales seem to be happier than people in the United States.


This section also includes almost a history of happiness and asks (and answers) the question: when did Americans become obsessed with happiness? Stearns’s research (as it is throughout the book) is impressive and interesting. Did people smile more in the 18th century because they were happier or because “it was in the 18th century that dental care began to be available in Western society, saving more teeth in decent condition… and therefore making more people comfortable with their smiles”?


The second section examines “the gaps between modernity and satisfaction”. Specifically, it looks at subjects such as gender, food, sexuality, and aging and examines how ‘progress’ in these areas relates to happiness. As always, it seems to be a complicated process; for example, people live longer today, which most would agree is good, but how society dealt, and perhaps still deals, with longer life spans complicates the issue and keeps increased longevity from resulting in complete and instant happiness. Simply consider one of Stearns’s points:  “In societies like the United States, where power and validity depended heavily on work capacity and earnings, retirement told older people that their productive period was over and they should step quietly to the social sidelines”. 


In many cases, society’s reactions to progress resulted in dissatisfaction, but in a few cases, progress (or modernity) in and of itself was not positive to begin with, with war being one example: “it’s hard to argue against the proposition that war becomes more vicious with modernity, beginning with the killing fields of the American Civil War. Technology is the key villain here…”


The last section, “Great Expectations”, turns “to the ‘what have you done for me today?’ side of modern mentality, where real gains are soon eclipsed by ambitious new hopes”. Stearns examines consumption, children, and death, of which he states: “Modernity and death are not friends”. He further contends that “too many people do not die as they wish to, not because of the vastly unreasonable expectations but because so many well-meaning participants prefer fighting death over an emphasis on calm and dignity.”  And it’s not just death that has changed; according to Stearns, grief has changed as well. One example: “The 2009 death of Michael Jackson generated noticeably greater reaction than had followed the killing of John Lennon”.


Satisfaction Not Guaranteed impresses on many levels. First, despite the fact that it is explaining why Americans aren’t happy, the book isn’t at all depressing. Second, Stearns doesn’t oversimplify (although the tone, at times, might be a little academic). To Stearns, consumption isn’t simply a sign that 21st century Americans are greedier than previous generations. Stearns looks at the history of consumption and discusses issues such as boredom, product innovation, and changes in shopping venues.


Perhaps most importantly, though, Stearns has a unique view of history as some of his closing thoughts indicate:


“It’s time to adjust the adage, given what we know about the wide range of the history of modernity. Those who do not know the past may indeed be condemned to repeat some of the past’s mistakes. That is the conventional statement, still valid. More to the point, however: those who do not know the past cannot really appreciate the forces that actively shape the present. They cannot fully understand the context for their own lives. The formation of modernity is a long process, and we’re still very much enmeshed in it.”



And because of this, the final message of the book seems to be that happiness is not lost—Americans just need to rethink progress and modernity in order to find it again.

Rating:

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By Peter N. Stearns
21 Jun 2012
Employing his trademark inquiry of emotions in American history, Peter Stearns asks why, if modern life has been generally characterized by measurable themes of progress, abundance, and improvement, are people not happier or more content with their lot in life?
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