Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society


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.


The vision of what modern society might be emerged more than two centuries ago, as a 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.

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