Satisfaction Not Guaranteed:Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society
By Peter N. Stearns
New York University Press, 279 pages
As citizens of a country whose founders enshrined the pursuit of happiness in its Declaration of Independence, Americans unceasingly and unsurprisingly ask themselves, Am I happy? Matters of money, health, job satisfaction, romantic love, family, and friendship are the principal concerns of both private and public life in our modern republic. The rise of Chinese power and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran can sometimes seem small matters beside unemployment, medical costs, insolent children, and shaky marriages.
But the daily lives of most Americans are nothing like unrelieved agony: Never before have so many had such good reason to be content. Yet as in the fairy tale of the princess and the pea, we now feel minor annoyances so intensely that they seem unendurable. Perhaps the right to pursue happiness had seemed an assurance that we would succeed in grasping it. In Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society, the social historian Peter N. Stearns, provost and professor at George Mason University, examines how the modern world, and especially the United States, has come to chase happiness with greater desperation while the expected sources of happiness have become increasingly abundant.
Stearns paints a comprehensive portrait both of happiness and its conspicuous absence. As a devout social scientist, he puts considerable faith in polls. A Gallup survey of 132 countries in 2005 and 2006, for example, showed that even though people in richer lands scored higher in “life satisfaction” than did those in poor ones, the richest were not necessarily the most satisfied: The United States, first in wealth, ranked 16th in “self-reports of living the best possible life.” When the not-exactly-clear distinction between “positive feelings” and “life satisfaction” was drawn, the United States came in 26th, while Costa Rica, 41st in average income, came in fourth and New Zealand, 22nd in wealth, topped the charts. The 1999 London School of Economics compilation dropped the United States to 46th in happiness, miles behind India, Ghana, and, at number one, Bangladesh.
There is a problem with such polls. Given the chance, would the average disgruntled American prefer to be a beaming Bangladeshi, or is the reverse more likely? The question answers itself and points to a more salient one: What sort of American would the disgruntled American like to be in order to have a better shot at happiness?
A wealthier one? Perhaps, but the figures dispute that money buys happiness. “Despite a doubling of average wealth between 1954 and 2004, for example, for the typical American, with consumer advances to match, not only has happiness not increased, but reports of actual deterioration mount.” There is a devilish paradox at work. Once a comfortable sufficiency has been reached, surplus does not noticeably increase happiness; yet having a lot makes you want more and more, so that there is no such thing as enough. “Small wonder that the amount of money the average family felt it ‘needed’ to survive doubled between the 1980s and 2000 (in constant dollars), reaching a figure ($102,000) that was in turn double actual average family income,” Stearns writes.
If consumer “need” is questionable, supply is relentless. To be a perfervid consumer is to be an aficionado of diversion. The latest gadgets, gimcracks, and whiz-bangs keep one occupied and amused—until they don’t. Stearns understands how boredom drives entertainment culture, and he is particularly informative on the evolution of the two. Our boredom differs from the medieval sin of acedia, a spiritual deprivation that cuts the sufferer off from the joys of faith. The word boredom did not enter the language until Charles Dickens introduced it in Bleak House (1853). At first, boredom was a confession of one’s emotional poverty; to be bored was to be considered boring, and bored people were exhorted to shape up. “Emily Post, for example, argued that ‘to be bored is a bad personal habit,’” writes Stearns.
In the mid-20th century, however, the child-rearing literature began to preach that children’s boredom was a problem parents needed to fix, with what Stearns calls “lively compensatory entertainment.” The New York Times insisted in 1950 that “youngsters today need television for their morale as much as they need fresh air and sunshine for their health.” Now video games, Happy Meals, Chuck E. Cheese’s, and the obligatory pilgrimage to Disney World are the rituals of the new dispensation, under which children had better be preserved from boredom. Worse still, the child is father to the man, who never grows up. “Kids who were raised with a certain sense of entitlement about being entertained, and a considerable expectation that consumerism would do the trick,” writes Stearns, “easily turned into adults who maintained the same approach.”
Soon it wasn’t enough not to be bored; we had to be unrelentingly cheerful in the bargain. In 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated and the Vietnam War was getting under way, an ad man visited the plague of the yellow smiley face upon an all-too-receptive populace. Eight years later, 50 million smiley-face buttons infected the land. The ad man did not seek a copyright, but the World Smile Corporation has cashed in big-time. “And currently a website offers over 500 smiling logos for those seeking variety within the common culture, while the Smiley Section on eBay runs to over 45 pages,” writes Stearns. “New York City offered a number of smiley-face skywriting products after 9/11, suggesting the need for cheer even amid disaster.”
For those requiring more detailed instruction in the art of smiling, the happiness-publishing medical complex represents a teeming American industry. Self-help books bent on inducing happiness induce vomiting instead. Stearns provides an emetic sampling of titles: “Baby Steps to Happiness; Infinite Happiness; Absolute Happiness; Everlasting Happiness; Happiness That Lasts; Happiness Is a Choice; Happiness Is a Choice for Teens; Happiness Is Your Destiny; Happiness Lives Within You; Happiness Is No Secret; Happiness Is a Serious Problem; Happiness Without Death; Happiness Without Sex; Compulsory Happiness.” Such unceasing encouragement brings on not only nausea but also depression. Stearns cites a psychologist’s recent explanation that Americans like to set improbably high goals for themselves and then suffer unduly when they fail to reach their marks. No one wants to think of himself as having fallen short, so being treated for mental and emotional illness has become more acceptable than admitting to the unhappiness of ordinary failure.
How did we get here from there? We had great expectations. Stearns begins with Enlightenment philosophes such as Nicolas de Condorcet, who rhapsodized in 1790: “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.” Benjamin Franklin, too, shone with the “growing Felicity of Mankind” and lamented that he was born too soon to enjoy the full glory of modernity.
But nature is not as malleable as the philosophical pitch made it out to be. Disease, poverty, and death are tough customers, and human ingenuity has eroded their power only so much. Indeed, modern men resent that power all the more because we think we ought to have subjugated it by now. Cancer, heart disease, HIV, crime, intolerance, superstition, obesity, the common cold—these are insufferable impositions upon our good will.
Our dissatisfaction, Stearns argues, comes at us from two directions: We have placed excessive stock in the modern vanguard, yet we are also unable entirely to forsake premodern ways. Despite “the essential gender revolution that modernity imposes,” women remain largely in traditional wifely and motherly roles, if no longer in such subservient ones. Stearns attributes the persistence of these established gender roles to a hangover from the first stirrings of modernity, when change came so fast that men and women alike grasped at some remaining source of stability. He does not seem to consider the possibility that certain old ways might have some basis in nature.
For Stearns, modernity effectively began in the 18th century and it is his own modern orientation that accounts for the shortcomings in his analyses. The intellectual foundations of modernity were, in truth, laid long before, by Niccoló Machiavelli (1469–1527), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650), all of whom preached and forecast a modification of human nature that would bring inhuman nature to heel. In The Prince, Machiavelli composed not only a sinister handbook for power-hungry political men but also the philosophical constitution for the new world order: Human virtue and prudence can overcome the vicissitudes of fortune or nature and create a world in which men may be truly happy for the first time. The moral restraints imposed by biblical lore or classical philosophy no longer pertain. Machiavelli emancipates men from the obligation to live up to their higher natures; low desires once condemned are given the go-ahead. The Machiavellian man ought to have whatever he wants, provided he has the resourcefulness to get it. Saul Bellow called the upshot of Machiavelli’s teaching “the biggest jailbreak ever.”
Francis Bacon wrote that man is made by nature to have authority over nature, and that thus far he has been unable to exercise it; Bacon intended to remedy the defect by replacing idle philosophical questions with scientific answers and thus enabling the conquest of nature “for the relief of man’s estate.” Descartes foresaw that his philosophy would lead to the human “mastery and possession of nature.” It was thus in the 16th and 17th centuries that the seeds of our present happiness predicament were sown.
Yet we have sound reason for the happiness we do possess. Almost no one in today’s civilized world would prefer to live in the far harsher world of Pericles or Abraham. But our comfort and complacency have diminished us; there were once races of men superior to ourselves, and some now feel the difference in rank.
For all his own dissatisfaction, the thoroughly modern Stearns does not feel the difference. He prefers not to speak of the soul, and it never occurs to him that ancient writings—whether the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the philosophical works of Plato, Aristotle, or the Stoics—might hold invaluable wisdom that could relieve our unhappiness and enhance our happiness. It is a mark of modernity’s moral scrawniness that Stearns makes no effort to indicate what a truly happy life might be. He takes for granted, as most of us do most of the time, that happiness means comfort, convenience, self-esteem, money in the bank, good food, good sex, and good sleep. Who would want to do without these? But a life devoted to the pursuit of such happiness can be a grasping after trifles. And only men made small will find ultimate satisfaction in a life like that.