Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

279 pages

April, 2012

ISBN: 9780814783627

$35

Cloth

Also available in

Subjects:

History

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 DocumentsAmerican Behavioral History; and Anxious Parents.

All books by Peter N. Stearns

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.

Reviews

  • "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 lifefrom 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

  • "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...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."

    PopMatters

  • "Satisfaction Not Guaranteed impresses on many levels...Stearns doesn't oversimplify."

    —Catherine Ramsdell, Popmatters

  • “Sneezing and yawning, Provine notes, can provide "satisfaction" (yawning apparently can even trigger orgasm in some people: try this at home) – which is just as well, since little else in life today does. Given the enormous advances over the last few centuries in agriculture, medicine, education and so forth, this author asks, why aren't we happier in our "modern condition"? The "satisfaction gap", Stearns argues, arises from various factors not yet eliminated by modernising forces (major stressors such as war) or actually created by them: the disorienting effects of constant change; the monstrous hegemony of clock time; the cruel injunction to be happy; meaningless and oversupervised work in modern jobs; medicalised death; anxiety over "correct" child-rearing; and the inability of shopping really to help. The book is dry but interestingly nuanced, encouraging us to see our flawed modernity as a "work in progress". In Victorian times, Stearns relates, "Nervous middle-class people now learned that having sex too often, possibly more than once a week, could induce premature death or insanity." One hopes that at least they yawned a lot.”

    —Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Recommended [for] all levels/libraries."

    CHOICE

  • "[Stearns] leaves the reader of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed with the hope that we continue to search for and "have a richer palette of personal goals" in our lives."

    Fairfax Connection

  • "In eight elegant, wide-ranging essays, the historian Peter N. Stearns explores answers to the question he considers the fundamental dilemma of modernity."

    —Carol Tavris, TLS