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Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

Peter N. Stearns

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?

Excerpted from the Introduction: Being Cheerful and Modern (footnotes omitted), from Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society by Peter N. Sterns. Reprinted by arrangement with New York University Press. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Introduction: Being Cheerful and Modern

The vision of what modern society might be emerged more than two centuries ago, as product of a transformation in Western philosophy and a new belief in the way material progress and human improvability might combine. It was in the 1790s that the French philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet wrote that he had “no doubt as to the certainty of the future improvements we can expect... Everything tells us that we are bordering the period of one of the greatest revolutions of the human race. The present state of enlightenment guarantees that it will be happy.”

Students of intellectual history might quickly add, at this point, that Condorcet was unusual in his optimism. They might cynically note that the fact that he could write his Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind while in hiding from French revolutionary radicals who sought to jail him (he later was arrested and committed suicide) suggests a clear problem in facing reality, and they might then turn to more complex Enlightenment theorists or to the surge of greater philosophical pessimism that would arise in later decades.

But the fact is that much of what Condorcet anticipated has actually happened. Agriculture has become vastly more productive, supporting larger populations. Machines have reduced physical labor. Education has spread. More parents are explicitly concerned about making their children happy. Diseases have receded in modern societies, greatly expanding life spans. And it’s fair to note that while Condorcet was unusual, he was not alone. In 1788 Benjamin Franklin himself wrote of the “growing Felicity of Mankind” resulting from improvements in technology, science, and medicine, and wished he could have been born two or three centuries later to see how all this progress would turn out.

Again, the vision was surprisingly accurate—save for two points. It did not cover the entire future of modern society, and it anticipated far more satisfaction from the gains that would occur than has turned out to be the case. This book, focusing on the second point, deals with the surprising double-sidedness of modern achievements. It explores the gulf between measurable advances and perceived happiness, and it probes the struggles people still face with many arguably beneficial results of modernity. Of course we’ll touch on the obvious misfires of modernity as well—for example, the increasing horror of modern warfare—but the main target is the satisfaction shortfall.

The basic point is straightforward, though underexplored to date. Even the gains modernity generated brought problems in their wake. Gains also prompted a rapid escalation of expectations that masked progress and brought their own dissatisfaction. And the whole process was complicated by modern claims about the new accessibility of happiness itself. The work of adjustment to modernity continues—we’re not that far from a number of basic transformations—and the opportunity for more successful adaptations continues as well. Exploring the gaps between hopes and gains, interesting in itself, assumes even greater importance when it can inform a reevaluation process.

Sweeping optimism about modernity’s potential has not entirely vanished. American politicians recurrently if vaguely invoke it—“yes we can”—and society at large sometimes manifests startling hopes about what more technology or more medicine might do in the future. And we’ll see in a moment how Enlightenment optimism surfaces almost perversely in the modern need to seem cheerful. But even as we continue to enjoy some of modernity’s obvious advantages, we fall short of the kind of happiness the visionaries had predicted. (It’s worth noting that the other great optimistic vision of modernity, Marxism, has also run aground.) Indeed, we’re as likely to project satisfaction backward in time as to ponder how far we have come. Thus the Good Old Days magazine, without making a systematic claim about current conditions, offers its readers “warm thoughts of the happy days gone by,” looking variously to the late 19th century, the 1920s, or the 1950s. Similarly, the popular slogan “back in the day,” though offering various meanings, connotes a simpler life in the past (sometimes in one’s own life span, sometimes more historically), despite constituting an incomplete thought with no clear meaning at all.

Often, the whole idea of a cozier past is just a matter of passing rhetoric, or a brief longing for (highly selective) memories of one’s own child-hood. But nostalgia can pack more serious meaning as well. The current American penchant for big, traditionally designed houses or Martha Stewart “country chic” ware suggests a desire to surround oneself with an aura of the past—often on the part of people who are in fact working too hard to spend much time at home sinking back into their reminiscent trappings. French bookstores note a surge of interest in glamorized accounts of peasant life on the part of resolutely urban Parisians. And for many years, in France, the United States, and elsewhere, the purpose of many a vacation has been to get back (conveniently briefly) to soaking in the countryside or camping in nature, often on the assumption that some respite from modern conditions is periodically essential.

Modernity, in other words, proves double-edged, even as most of us have come to depend on its key achievements. 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. There are some good reasons for the concern—premodern societies did not have automobiles—but the lack of perspective is noteworthy as well. Indeed, anxieties around children seem to have surged since the 1980s, with growing fears about letting even older children out of sight. And childhood is just one instance of many where objective changes and widespread perceptions do not match. We can learn more about ourselves by exploring why modern advances have not produced a greater sense of ease.

This is a book about the modern condition and about why the gains of living in modern, urban, industrial, affluent societies have not proved more satisfying than they have. We won’t belabor the “good old days” theme. But we will examine why real results that parallel earlier anticipations of progress have not generated the ease and contentment that the forecasters assumed. The book explores a rupture between substantial improvements for a majority in modern societies, and the kinds of reactions they evince—a rupture that affects not only our understanding of recent history but also many aspects of the quality of daily life. It’s not so much that modernity went wrong—with a couple of obvious and substantial exceptions, there’s no reason to bash the trajectory—as that it has not gone as right as might reasonably be expected from the historical record.

I have been studying some of the changes that go into shaping the modern condition for my entire career as a historian. I was initially fascinated by the impact of the industrial revolution and the question of how people going from rural life or urban crafts into factories managed to survive their experience. The subject is still compelling, even when one recognizes that early factories were not nearly as large or mechanically overwhelming as their contemporary counterparts (they were, however, both noisier and less safe). In subsequent years I’ve tried to deal with some of the less direct results of modern change, in family life or body types or emotions. In all the work, the unifying themes have been how substantial modern change has been, from its 18th-century origins to the present, and how important it is to figure out how people have navigated it—and still navigate it. Happily, beyond my own endeavors, there has been a huge expansion in the range of historical research, which allows analysis of change and resistance in many aspects of the modern human experience.

In many ways, as I have long argued, people have managed to adjust to rapid, extensive modern change supremely well. There were shocks, and some individual collapses. And at points there was fierce protest. In general, however, most recent research, even on immigrants or the industrial working class, has tended to emphasize adaptation and accommodation, with extreme commitments to protest or disorientation being fairly unusual and episodic. While key passages in modernity have roused passionate opposition, the more characteristic patterns involve more complex reactions and more diffuse targets.

Yet I have also been impressed, probably increasingly over time, with some of the less overt costs involved in trying to deal with the advent and maturation of modernity, even among groups less beleaguered than early factory workers. Living in a modern framework is not easy, and even in societies like our own that have been dealing with the process for several generations, there are still areas where definitive standards have yet to be agreed upon. Assessing how some key problems and tensions have emerged, even amid considerable adaptation, contributes to personal understanding and helps free up space to discuss other options.

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