Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

by Peter N. Stearns


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In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, modern urban, industrial, affluent societies have made great strides towards fixing some of the problems that plagued other societies for centuries: 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. Modernity’s blessings are many and bountiful—but has modernity really made us happy?

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed is a book about the modern condition, and why the gains of living in modern urban, industrial, affluent societies have not proved more satisfying than they have. It examines why real results that paralleled earlier anticipations of progress have not generated the ease and contentment that the same forecasters assumed would apply to modern life. Employing his trademark inquiry of emotions in American history, Peter N. 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? Why is there an increased incidence of psychological depression, anxiety, and the sense that no one has ever reached a pinnacle of happiness or contentment? It’s not so much that modernity went wrong, but rather that it has not gone as swimmingly as was anticipated. Satisfaction Not Guaranteed uses concrete examples from both history and the present, such as happiness surveys, to discuss how as a society we might better juggle the demands of modern life with the pursuit of happiness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814783627
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 04/30/2012
Pages: 279
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Peter N. Stearns is Provost and University Professor at George Mason University. Since 1967, he has served as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History. His numerous books include World History in Documents ; American Behavioral History ; and Anxious Parents.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Being Cheerful and Modern?

part i. The Modern and the Happy: A Tenuous Embrace

The Gap: Happiness Scales and the Edge of Sadness

Component Parts: Modernity and Ideas of

Happiness and Progress as Historical Forces

part ii. Maladjustments in Modernity

Modernity’s Deficiencies

False Starts and Surprises:

Making Modernity More Difficult

The Dilemmas of Work in Modernity

part iii. Great Expectations

Death as a Modern Quandary

Century of the Child

Childhood, Parenting, and Modernity

Born to Shop: Consumerism as the Modern Panacea

Conclusion: Shaping Modernity



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From the Publisher

A masterful introduction to a new kind of history, one that looks to the past to illuminate the most basic aspects of contemporary behavior, from parenting practices and consumer behavior to the rise of the hospice and the growing acceptance of oral sex. This is one of those seminal books that radically transforms the way we look at the present and the past."-Steven Mintz,John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History, University of Houston

"As always, Peter Stearns stimulates our thinking about history and human experience in important ways. The essays Stearns has collected for this volume are unconventional, provocative, and compelling, covering a wide range of topics including how we parent, consume, die, make love, and use our sense of smell. This collection gives new vigor to the study of social history because it is very brave and very interesting."-Joan Jacobs Brumberg,Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor, Cornell University

“Peter Stearns and his intrepid co-conspirators do not, like other seekers of truth in history, try to understand the past in its own terms. Instead, they try to learn from the past to touch the present and affect the future. One after another, their extraordinary essays suggest that their audacious ambition may be attainable.”-Michael Zuckerman,University of Pennsylvania

"Essays on human happiness usually focus on individual feelings and contemporary life. Peter Stearns makes happiness a historical question, using analytic moves he has developed through a series of studies. He emphasizes the social context of human feeling and connects the present to the last 250 years in Europe and the United States, the historical era of 'modernity.' He uses impressive erudition to unearth striking examples and a conversational tone to suggest relevant generalizations. Written with wit and careful balance, his essay becomes a gentle guide to historical understanding of our times and of happiness in America."-Raymond Grew,Emeritus Professor of History, University of Michigan

"In this wide-ranging, eloquently argued, and deeply insightful book, Peter Stearns, one of America's leading historians, addresses a fundamental conundrum of modern life. We live longer, eat better, and enjoy greater comfort than previous generations, and yet this progress has not brought us the happiness we expected. As he examines the double-sided nature of contemporary society, Stearns provides fascinating insight into the texture of daily life—from the obesity epidemic to the modern way of death, from work life to sex life. Satisfaction Not Guaranteed offers a probing, persuasive, and very important analysis of modernity and its discontents." -Susan J. Matt,author of Homesickness: An American History

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