The Dilemmas of Happiness in the Modern World — A Conversation with Social Historian
Peter N. Stearns author of
Satisfaction Not Guaranteed : Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society
Monday, November 26, 2012
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline, theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Do we have a duty to be happy? Does the modern age require us to be happy? Does it on the other hand make it impossible to be happy? Those are the questions addressed by Peter Stearns’s new book, Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society. Peter Stearns became provost and Professor of History at George Mason University in the year 2000. He was named University Professor in 2011. Educated at Harvard University, he has previously taught at the University of Chicago, Rutgers, Carnage Melon, and Harvard University. He’s widely published in Modern Social History including the history of emotions and also in the larger field of world history.
Mohler: Professor Stearns, in your new book Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society, you point to the very strange and perhaps even unexpected development that the modern age didn’t deliver on a mandate for happiness.
Stearns: I think in many respects that’s true. We do know that modern societies tend to be at least somewhat more happy than many societies that have not yet modernized, but the gap isn’t as great as you’d imagine and there are certainly some areas where modern developments have brought really unexpected set-backs.
Mohler: Well, you go into those in some detail, but I think the very question you’re asking is one that many people really probably haven’t “thought to think.” In other words, to realize that perhaps our modern concerns for happiness aren’t the same kinds of expectations that people have had throughout human history. So how did you come to decide to invest yourself in this project?
Stearns: Two spurs, really. One was the gap in the happiness data between degrees of modernity and levels of happiness. Modern societies are a bit happier than many societies that aren’t yet fully modernized. But the gap is just surprisingly slight. That was one spur. The other is looking at particular phenomena in modernization, such as changes in patterns of work, or changes in patterns in attitudes towards death. One immediately sees a gap between what was expected and what is actually developed.
Mohler: Intellectual historians and others will argue over the definition of the modern age, but as you point out without question, something very significant happened to change the way people live and societies are organized in what we would call modernity. Just for the purposes of our conversation, how are you defining modern?
Stearns: Very simply. Modern society is one that is no longer primarily agricultural it is heavily industrial or post-industrial. It is substantially urban. It sees patterns of private life such as birth and death rates changed markedly from patterns prevailing in agricultural societies.
Mohler: Well in an incredibly insightful way you point out that Modernity should deliver on a lot of human happiness, just in terms of the fact that you have such things as extended life, you have a radical reduction in the deaths of children, and you have changes in work habits that are no longer so tied to physical labor. Why don’t you detail for us a little of what modernity did achieve for human beings in those respects?
Stearns: There’s no question- I think the most striking progress is the one you already cited is the dramatic reduction in levels of infant and child mortality, but the reduction in physical burdens of work, the expansion of longevity, the improvement in levels of education, the improvement in material standards of living, all of these are categories in which they are genuine gains to be registered with modernity.
Mohler: And you would think that all the things would produce greater satisfaction, greater contentment, and indeed this elusive thing we call happiness.
Stearns: Yes, and again to an extent I think they do particularly in the first phases of achieving modernity; but, again, the gains are not as substantial as one might expect.
Mohler: Well let me just ask you a straight forward question: how in the world would you measure happiness anyway?
Stearns: Hard to do. Again, we are advantaged in contemporary society by various kinds of polls, opinion polls, satisfaction polls, if we had those from earlier periods we would have a more certain quantitative measurement. So there is a bit of guess work involved. But, when you can chart current comparisons between societies that are not yet fully modernized and those that are clearly modern, you can get some at least reasonable estimate of probable changes over time.
Mohler: As a social historian, you are used to being asked big questions but you’re also accustomed to asking questions that perhaps others just don’t notice. You also notice changes and I thought early on in your book, you precisely pointed to something that I think is often not considered and that is, you say this, “with modernity came a responsibility to be happy, to be cheerful.” You talk about the insistence on “good cheer” that emerged with modernity itself. Talk about that change.
Stearns: Well this is at least in the Western context. I don’t know that it is inherently attached to modernity but there is no question that in Western culture, that is West European and North American, the first signs of modern structures in society coincided with an intellectual shift that began to argue that happiness was not only possible but desirable, that people should be cheerful and this combination of an important but in some ways stressful process of modernization, this combination with the injunction with being happy could really make things rather difficult.
Mohler: So “to be happy” became a greater challenge of all things because you know have a responsibility to be happy to contribute to the common wheel and not to detract from the common happiness with your out-of-step unhappiness.
Stearns: I think that’s a good statement, yeah. And even in some cases, again various people have pointed this out, the insistence of being happy makes it possibly harder to achieve because it automatically jacks-up expectations.
Mohler: Speaking of those expectations, one of the delights I had in reading your book was to think some thoughts and reflect on some questions I really hadn’t considered before, and one of them is, that we not only are a civilization that feed our children Happy Meals, but right into The Declaration of Independence, right into our own formal charter and indeed even reflected in the United States Constitution is a responsibility or at least a right to pursue happiness. That’s unusual language in retrospect.
Stearns: Right, I think that was one of the first cases in which you see happiness built into a political expectation in that way. It was a very revealing one and it does turn out for reasons that are really worth considering that the United States really has been in a world lead in the ‘quest for happiness’ over the past two centuries.
Mohler: But you talk about a dark side to modernity. There are so many gains, and you rightly point out that even people who might have, as yet, an undiagnosed unhappiness of modernity, they don’t want to return to high infant mortality, they don’t want to return to a time before antibiotics and for that matter dishwashers, but there is a dark side to modernity and I think you honestly address it.
Stearns: Several dark sides potentially, one being that modernity brings in some measurable disadvantages, even along with gains and the other, and here the push for happiness is directly involved, human beings, being what they are, as soon as you make one gain, your expectations go up and so your potential disappointment with inadequate progress is magnified.
Mohler: Well you also have a new calibration and an entire new structure to think about such things, for instance you document one of the dark sides of modernity being that people even if they were depressed in the pre-modern age didn’t know they were. Now, not only do they have a diagnoses that they are depressed but they also have the commodification of depression where people are ready to sell endless numbers of expensive drugs to cure your depression.
Stearns: The very term ‘depression’ tends to take over from the more moderate term like ‘sadness,’ so that the whole process is magnified and often medicalized.
Mohler: So if I am looking at a Gilbert Stewart painting of George Washington with his stern and almost, formal kind of visage there, and then I compare it to the official portrait of Barack Obama, one of them is smiling and it’s not George Washington.
Stearns: Now that’s right, I think the history of smiling is absolutely fascinating. There are some very practical twists. We know that Washington had fairly ill-fitting teeth, he probably just didn’t want to smile, because he didn’t want to reveal that infirmity. President Obama seems to have excellent teeth and is perfectly willing to display them.
Mohler: Well and he symbolizes perhaps an age that feels a moral responsibility to be happy. One of the things you deal with very early in your book, is the fact that a part of the unhappiness is perhaps that people feel out of sync with an official responsibility, with a duty to be happy. How did we come up with this duty to be cheerful?
Stearns: Again, I think it is a strong social injunction and I try to trace it. I think it does begin, as you suggest in the 18th century, that’s when the injunction about the right to happiness pops-up, but I think it became much more intensified from the later 19th century onward, so that children were really explicitly taught that they had an obligation to be cheerful within the family. I think this mandate has extended and it’s an interesting one and it probably makes daily life superficially more pleasant some of the time and it can be a real constraint as well because it makes it harder to admit when things are not going quite right.
Mohler: In terms of the specifics, in your book, you deal with several things that I think would shock many modern people, one of them is the fact that in the pre-modern age if you did lie about your age you lied to make yourself older rather than younger, there has been a complete inversion in the modern age in terms of the value of being young and old.
Stearns: That’s absolutely fascinating and there is an irony here, because in modern society the opportunities to live into old age increase and yet our tolerance of old age in some ways goes down, so there’s a modern tension right there.
Mohler: Another modern tension you document is the pressure of time, even with the modern age roughly parallel with when people began to wear watches and to carry, as one of my friends says, “time on their bodies,” and to regulate ourselves by time. That too has brought in the modern age some new opportunities for unhappiness.
Stearns: Sure, I mean the time constraint is huge and we teach our kids time obviously, very carefully and I myself am a time addict so I can’t claim personal exemption, but I think the compulsion to be timely is at the very best a mixed bag, it can promote real problems ranging from impatience to outright stress.
Mohler: Before we turn to some of the specific undersides of modernity, that you deal with extensively in your book, I want to ask you about something that you note without going into a great deal of detail and that is a shift from what you call the “humble melancholy” or “melancholia” that marked the Christian disposition to this official cheerfulness of the modern age.
Stearns: There’s quite a bit of historical work it’s not mine, but I obviously use it, on the popularity of moderate melancholy in both England and the American colonies, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. People would apologize for outbursts of laughter or for undue mirth and at some point towards the middle of the 18th century that balance began to shift away from the notion that melancholy was even appropriate and towards at least the early stages of this notion that people should be resolutely cheerful.
Mohler: Maybe we better define melancholy here; it’s not the opposite of cheerfulness it’s an entirely different thing, isn’t it?
Stearns: No it’s not the opposite of cheerfulness; it’s just a disposition to be slightly downcast to avoid expectations of unduly positive earthly experience. It’s not necessarily sad, but it’s definitely not cheerful.
Mohler: Before we turn to some of these other issues, I want to go to perhaps the one issue that most of us would recognize is an appropriate cause for sadness and that is death. You deal of course with the death of children, we will get to that in a moment, but just death in general you point out that there has been a huge transformation in bereavement patterns and in the ways we at least think we are supposed to think about death.
Stearns: One of the big revolutions with modernity was the revolution in the practical experience of death, the age at which one died, what one died from, where one died, and with this came an almost comparable revolution in attitudes that made death much less acceptable and much less a topic of formal discourse and that creates an intriguing set of problems because while we’ve changed death we’ve obviously haven’t eliminated it. But we have reduced our chances of talking about it constructively.
Mohler: And so talking about death constructively would be admitting that we are not only cheerful, but that we are grieving and so grief even in a public much less a private context is something now that is a great embarrassment to us it seems.
Stearns: I think we are not doing as quite as badly as we were say 50-60 years ago, but we are uncomfortable with grief, and we tend to label anybody who grieves too extensively as needing some sort of psychological intervention, so the problem of defining an acceptable and normal level of grief is rather an acute one in modern societies.
Mohler: And by the way, I’m sure you’re familiar with the fact that in the recent controversy over the upcoming diagnostic and statistical manual in terms of psychiatry and psychology, there is a very open debate that’s reached even the front pages of the New York Times in recent months, about whether grief is itself a mental illness or a normal human response, from a Christian viewpoint, that’s a very odd question even to ask.
Stearns: From an historical viewpoint as well, it’s a very strange question. Frankly I think a disturbing one because grief is clearly a normal human response, it’s not going to be eliminated, and even to consider that it should be designated as a disease category is quite strange.
Mohler: In terms of the modern experience, most of us would think of course of work and you document that you can’t have modernity without what’s known as the industrial revolution, but there have been many lesser revolutions including perhaps now the digital revolution that has changed how we work but in terms of what we expect out of work and happiness, you really deal fascinatingly with that question, how has work become an issue for us in the modern age?
Stearns : This is a tough one and I don’t want to pretend that I have some sort of magically accurate interpretation. But there are aspects of work that clearly do not improve with modernity such as the pace at which people are expected to work, the imposition of the new time sense, the degree of specialization in much work so that it’s difficult to associate one’s efforts with a finished product. There are aspects of work that for many people probably got worse with modernity rather than better, even though physical burdens lessened and material rewards improved. So, judging work is a tough one. I mainly want here to encourage a sense that the work situation is one that requires more thought, more careful evaluation that we usually apply to it.
Mohler: When it comes to work you also make a very interesting observation and that it that in the pre-modern age most young men went through an apprenticeship and then they were on their own, but in the new world of work, we find ourselves working with supervisors for the entirety of our lifetimes that does change the equations significantly.
Stearns: Yea, in many instances the opportunities for at least some hope of independence in self-direction. Most people never have a work period in which that really occurs.
Mohler: We tend to take our age for granted, too few ask those basic questions about how the intellectual and social conditions came about, and how did people live before this era? When it comes to modernity you have a very clear historical line. There was a pre-modern age and now we are in a modern age but modernity as Peter Stearns says, brought many benefits. We are all thankful for antibiotics and CAT scans and for that matter, interstate highway systems and computers. But it has also come with tremendous costs and with dilemmas that could not have existed until the rise of the modern age. That’s what makes a conversation like this so very helpful.
Mohler: In terms of matters that you really deal with at length, in terms of the aspects of modernity that perhaps are most complicated in terms of happiness, you deal with the gender, sexuality, aging, and eating. Now those are four things that we really can’t get away from. But let’s just deal with them serially. In terms of gender, how has this become so complicated?
Stearns: I think modernity, inevitably imposes at least some serious changes in gender relations. Two examples will illustrate this. One, with modern society the average woman sees her birth rate drop considerably, which means that for most women, there has to be an investment in goals not instead of but in addition to bearing and raising children, and then modernity also improves female levels of education, even more dramatically than male levels. So you have a situation in which women are less bound by child bearing and see opportunities for education increase inevitably that raises some questions about traditional gender patterns and traditional patterns of male superiority. I don’t mean that the results are clear cut towards some universally accepted new definition, but some of the old standards have to be rethought.
Mohler: In terms of gender, when it comes not only to the roles between men and women but just dealing with women in particular, it seems to me that the lives of women have become even more complicated than the lives of men, as you recount here, in terms of happiness because, with the responsibilities of motherhood and childhood, there also now seems to be some responsibility to have some ‘other’ life in order to have a meaningful life, and as you mention social pressure here plays a huge role.
Stearns: This is true and this is part of the current women’s debate now about whether it’s possible to have it “all” and what “all” would consist of and I think it is a set of tensions that impinge on men to some extent, but not to the same degree. I think you are absolutely right, men can see their parental responsibilities as serious but not primary in the way that most women are still encouraged to think.
Mohler: Professor Stearns, when it comes to sexuality, you trace of course very modern concerns with sexuality but you also point out that a lot of what has changed in terms of sexuality has come, well even, more recently than the advent of the modern age with developments such as contraception. Just walk us through those developments if you will.
Stearns: No question, the first signs of modernity in the West if you take this as most of us do to be the later 18th century, did see indication that some popular sexual habits were likely to change, but this produced an immense and understandable reaction among many people that among other things went into what we call Victorianism, an effort to use culture to restrict sexual activity, to focus it traditionally, largely on reproductive efforts, and there was a built-in tension here between the opportunities which modernity offered for new types of sexual contacts and perhaps even a reliance on sexuality as a recreational release and these enhanced moral strictures and these tensions obviously still affect us, still promote widespread disagreement about what appropriate sexuality is, how we should limit births, etc. So, the issues here are quite real and they result from the clash between modern opportunities and potentials and the kind of moral response that initially greeted them.
Mohler: One of the things you point out is that sex and modernity, to use your own words here, “has become more important or at least more openly important as an ingredient of happiness.”
Stearns: Obviously among other things, you just have to look at the history of sex manuals and their increasing proliferation in the 20th century. They are bent on saying sex it vital to happiness and happiness should define your reactions to your own sexual activities.
Mohler: Now not to move necessarily sequentially, but to another issue, when it comes to old age, there’s been a radical redefinition. We talked about the fact that in the pre-modern age people often wanted to appear older than they were, now it’s the opposite, but old age itself has become a problem with happiness. It is tied to changes in work and family and everything else. Why is old age, and the fact that we are living longer and there are more of us, who are living longer, how is that going to represent a great challenge to the happiness equation?
Stearns: I think there are two angles here, one we touched on before and that is the extent to which old age expanded but an attitude that welcomed the opportunities attached to old age, that attitude in some ways decreased, so we no longer look to the elderly to use the obvious point, we no longer look to the elderly automatically as special sources of wisdom. So you have this first tension, numbers of people go up and the cultural importance attached to old age goes down. So that’s tension number one. Tension number two, is something we’re grappling with literally right at the moment, in terms of our current budget crisis. The first response of modern societies to the increase of older people was quite understandably to urge new systems of retirement that would give them a separation from work that would reduce the burden of dealing with older workers well that was a response that worked pretty well for many people for upwards of half a century or even more. At this juncture when the costs of retirement are being increasingly realized, we have to wonder whether part of that equation doesn’t have to be rethought. That’s very painful, so I don’t think we figured out the appropriate modern response to the situation of old age yet. It’s an active ongoing debate.
Mohler: One would think, throughout human history that the first and primary arena of human happiness would be that of marriage, and the family. But as you document, given the impact of modernity on the family, and on marriage also, that’s now at least a very different kind of equation, so how does the family now play into the question of personal happiness?
Stearns: First of all, in many ways the family has survived surprisingly well. So I don’t want at all to be saying that the family in modernity is in some sort of automatic crisis. But there are clearly some new tensions and, in the first place, the family becomes less essential economically. Work moves outside the home with modernity, you don’t have to be married to be economically successful, that can relieve the family of some economic pressures, but it also reduces some elements of the family imperative. One obvious manifestation, divorce rates go up. When the family is no longer economically as necessary, people begin to assess that more in terms of its contribution to other aspects of happiness, and this can lead to negative assessments. I also think the family, as it is increasingly defined in terms of its role in contributing to personal happiness, plays right into this larger nexus around happiness. We are so urged to think about our happiness in the family that it’s easy to be disappointed. It’s easy to feel that something is a little bit missing. So the family in modern times remains successful but amid stresses and amid quite a bit of instability.
Mohler: It seems to be the cult of personal autonomy and of self-fulfillment plays a big role in this. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has talked about the fact that the rise of romantic love has been well documented and then of expressive marriage we express who we are by the act of marriage, and who we marry, and the state of being married; but she says that has now been extended even into what she calls “expressive divorce,” that in order to demonstrate my autonomy and to be as fulfilled as I think I have to be, is now not enough to divorce, you have to divorce expressively. In other words, saying that I am divorcing for this purpose, so I can be the “me” I’m supposed to be. That would have been inconceivable in the pre-modern age.
Stearns: No question. I mean among other things the economic imperatives were categorically against that. So you’re right this is a new area of uncertainty in the modern family setting.
Mohler: I am going to read to you one sentence from your book that I think just ought to stand-out in terms of the point you make. You write, “Many American poles from the later twentieth century onward suggest that the happiest kind of married couple is childless. A truly striking finding and an obvious change from the good old days, when having children was a fundamental goal of marriage.” I find that to be an absolutely shocking sentence.
Stearns: I am the parent of four kids, so I obviously like parenting, but the fact is that many people are happier when they are not attempting parenting and I also add that in that same section that the happiest parent is the parent of only one child.
Mohler: Well that is incredible when you point out that in the pre-modern age a couple attempted to have between six to eight children and had to in order to basically increase the odds of their reproductive success in a day of very high child mortality.
Stearns: Right. And you know in those days children were essential to the family labor force and that is obviously not now the case so one of the quiet little revolutions in modernity is the children switch from being economic assets to economic liabilities and that changes the equation substantially and inevitably raises questions about ‘What are we having children for?’ If they are costing us money, how do we weigh this against other things we might want to be spending our money on.
Mohler: Well, one of the kind of insidious turn-arounds you have in this very chapter entitled “The Century of the Child: Childhood Parenting in Modernity,” is that you have parents having children in order to be happy, having children who then have children who have a responsibility to be happy, the parents then have the responsibility to make happy and to make cheerful.
Stearns: Exactly. And I think the 20th century history of parents assuming wider levels of responsibility for seeing that their kids are happy, that’s another sort of interesting tension about contemporary parenting. We mostly accept it but it’s not a traditional challenge, it’s a new one.
Mohler: How does this change the entire equation between duty and happiness, just to generalize as is necessary in this conversation, I would argue that in the pre-modern age and with extensions even into the present there are some who see a duty to be happy but in the midst of the obligations. In other words the obligations come first, whether it’s marriage and family and responsibility and work, duty before God, and to make a contribution to society, that came first, and you find your happiness within it, to a very changed situation, in which happiness itself becomes the end.
Stearns: In some extremes that’s true. Now I think most people, again, I’m writing a book that’s trying to point out some genuine problems and dilemmas but I also hope I indicate that I think many people make some reasonable adjustments and modifications of some of the cultural assumptions. So I think many people, in fact, realize that true happiness, or at least, true satisfaction often lies in fulfilling one’s obligations. That it’s not an “either/or” situation, but I do agree that in some portrayals happiness becomes a highly personalized consumer type acquisition that does not comport easily with the sense of obligation.
Mohler: I think one of the more reassuring things you do point out in your book and you say this in the beginning, and you come back to it in the end is that your review, by means of social history is that human beings are rather incredibly resilient, that they do change and adapt to new social contexts even in the contexts of modernity rather well.
Stearns: Sure, that’s why this is a book about some areas in which I think we could modify some patterns and consider some adjustments. It’s not a book about some outright catastrophe. My hope is by encouraging people to think about some standard modern patterns and dilemmas, we can recalibrate just a little bit, but it’s not a plea for a necessary revolution as you say. Many people adjust pretty well. Some of them adjust very well. I simply think we could be doing a little better.
Mohler: Let’s talk about consumerism, in your chapter “Born to Shop,” you talk about the attempt by many people to make themselves happy by consumer activity, by buying things, and you point to the question that we really aren’t sure, it’s kind of ‘chicken and egg’ situation. Which comes first, the desire to be happy or the desire to buy?
Stearns: Chronologically they were pretty closely associated in places like Britain or colonial America. And I tried to point out that I think it’s easy to condemn consumerism. People have condemned modern levels of consumerism since it first showed-up. There’s some superficial aspects, there are contrasts between consumerism and other goals, but I try to point out that in its early stages, consumerism probably responded to some legitimate needs. What I am concerned about is particularly over the past half-century or a bit more, consumerism has somehow taken on a life of its own. It’s no longer fulfilling needs; it’s rather creating a treadmill from which people find it difficult to escape.
Mohler: You know a couple of other questions came to me while reading you book, one is the experience of modernity and with all its technological wonders was supposed to give us more time, more expressive time – free time. Yet, given the responsibilities we have to be happy, we really aren’t very satisfied. And I think the word satisfaction has to plat a very important role here. It is not necessarily the same thing as being cheerful, but we have this mandate to fill our time with things that are supposed to make us happy.
Stearns: Right, including in the case of the Americans, the obligation to work more than what would otherwise be necessary, to fulfill consumer goals and I think reconsideration of time allocation is one of the essential desiderata of a more balanced approach to modernity.
Mohler: Well what in the world do you do with something like good-old boredom, how does boredom fit into this picture? It turns out that it must be something like one of the deadly sins of a cheerful age.
Stearns: Well it is certainly a challenge, kids as you know, kids learn very early in their infancy or at least early childhood, that telling parents that they are bored is a fairly explicit challenge for parents to find something more entertaining to provide them. So I think boredom is an interesting modern condition. It’s a modern word in itself, it wasn’t used before the 18th century, and it becomes yet another way in which we constantly are prone to ask ourselves, whether we are happy enough, whether we are being entertained adequately, and at points this becomes an excessive level of pressure.
Mohler: But this kind of reality that previous generations might have known as anomy, or just an unstructured opportunity without the obligation of particular worker responsibilities, or even the project of the self, that is what produced so many of the great works of art that that is what’s necessary to human reflection, are we just pushing that so far to the margins that it doesn’t much exist anymore in a modern society?
Stearns: Well obviously individuals vary, so I don’t want to come off as unduly extreme here, but I think we do tend, from the way we raise children onward we do tend to eliminate unstructured time. I think this is one of the facets of contemporary childhood that has been frequently called into question. We want kids busy at something presumably constructive but we want them busy at all points, we are distressful when they simply seem to be sitting around with no clear pattern of activity.
Mohler: In terms of the happiness gap that you document here, you call for what you would describe as some rather humble progressive changes in the modern age. Do you think it is ever possible to actually close that gap, regardless of the age in which we live?
Stearns: Well, yes I think it is possible to reduce the gap and I think many people actually do by getting more sensible expectations of what happiness should consist of and how often one can in fact expect to be actively happy as opposed to more moderate levels of satisfaction. I think you can reduce expectations, I think you can reconsider certain issues that we don’t often handle well, such as expectations of death and come up with a somewhat more livable formula than we currently have. Dramatic revolution? No. Modification of certain current tensions? Yes.
Mohler: I have to tell you, your book is brilliant, I really enjoyed looking backwards at some of your previous writings as well and I think you evidently have a habit of touching on some of the most important questions that should be asked. I want to ask you something that isn’t really covered in your book except by oblique reference and that is, to what degree do you think that the process of secularization of the diminishing influence of an explicitly Christian worldview in the West, has contributed to any part of this development?
Stearns: Well look, I don’t tackle it and I don’t want to come on as an expert in an area where I am not – but I think clearly, whether the approach is Christian or simply religious, modern societies have tended to reduce the acceptability or the encouragement of more spiritual levels of satisfaction. I think that is clearly true. I don’t necessarily think that is an explicitly Christian problem. I think it would apply to many other religions as well, but I think it is an issue with modern times.
Mohler: At the very end of your book you point out the trajectory for what you identify as anti-modern movements is not going to be very happy, no pun intended here.
Stearns: Right. You sort of touched on this before there is no indication that most people including myself would want to go back to pre-modern conditions. So, the adjustment process is not one in which attacks on modernity make much sense. Modernity in many ways has been a good thing and to fail to recognize that is misleading. So I think the choice is not modernity vs. anti modernity, the question is what kind of modernity can we define and can we moderate some initial trajectories towards a more satisfactory overall combination.
Mohler: Professor Stearns, thank you so much for this conversation, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate the fact that you joined me today for Thinking in Public.
Stearns: It was a great pleasure and thank you for your really good questions and comments.
Mohler: Even when we do not take modernity for granted we sometimes generalize about its affects, either exaggerating its negative or positive aspects. Peter Stearns in his book “Satisfaction: Not Guaranteed” has attempted to find a middle way, to critique modernity in terms of its liabilities, while also championing its achievements as well. He calls for human beings, who he demonstrates to be remarkably adaptable to adapt a bit further in terms of the reconciliation between modernity and happiness. At the end of that very conversation, I asked him about the role that Christianity and religious faith has played in happiness. He pointed out that in a secular age, that age that was only made possible by the modern age, that it has become a far more difficult equation and we need to think further about what that will be.
One of the interesting things to note, just in terms of the history of ideas and the history of language is how the word ‘modern’ has been transformed. It was almost entirely considered to be an unalloyed, positive word. Modern was a compliment paid to anything. You wanted modern ideas, you wanted to live in a modern family, you wanted your house to be filled with modern furniture. The situation has now become far more complex. As Peter Stearns reflects, even in terms of architectural styles American now want to live in houses that look old in terms of architectural design. We watch programs about those things that happened in generations far previous to us. The Parisians who are flocking to Paris bookstores are buying works that present rather romanticized visions of peasant life in agrarian France. These are the dilemmas of modernity. They show up on the best seller list and they show up in the mirror. They show up in our conversations and they show up in our marriages, families and also in our churches as well. This whole idea of personal fulfillment of happiness and satisfaction is something that is somewhat awkward as a moral conversation in our day. It is obviously, as is evidenced by this book, an awkward issue when it comes to the secular worldview – just how happy should we be? We evidently must be happy because in an age that lacks a kind of Christian eschatology, whatever happiness we are going to get, we are going to have to get out of this life, and that of course reframes the entire equation – what we expect out of life, our of marriage, out of family, out of work, out of youth, out of old age. It’s all thrown into one big jumble of confusions as the modern age presents genuine achievements but also some very real dilemmas. The secular worldview, in looking at the issue of satisfaction has to measure it in terms of explicitly this worldly concern. And, if we are honest, those of us who are Christians often find ourselves all too often measuring our own satisfaction in similar terms. The problem is the delivery on the promises. No age, secular, modern, pre-modern or otherwise can deliver on promises in this life. That becomes something that is very clear in this book, Satisfaction: Not Guaranteed. Having read the book, which I want to commend whole-heartedly, as a brilliant set of insights in terms of social history, written by someone with an incredible amount of competence to survey the landscape of these concerns, one of the limitations here is that it’s not only the modern age, but it is virtually any age that cannot deliver on happiness. Pre-moderns had concerns which we now gladly do not have, such as daunting percentages of child mortality; the reality of social stratification and a complete lack of social mobility, work that was often tied to excruciating, backbreaking labor. We are glad to be freed of those things and we are all grateful for dishwashers and antibiotics. But on the other hand the modern age can’t deliver on its promises and even as it has brought much liberation in terms of technology and for that matter, political liberation in an aspiration as well, it has also failed to deliver the kind of liberation that human beings most need. Reading a book like, Satisfaction: Not Guaranteed, is a tour de force in terms of intellectual reading. It not only presents all the arguments and the questions and documentation and analysis that someone with the skill of Peter Stearns brings, but it also points to many catalytic insights that every reader will come on his or her own self, just in terms of reading and understanding this is where this question leads to other questions in my mind. This is where this aspect of modernity actually needs further consideration. We too often find ourselves simply in the flow of life, not thinking about these questions. But one of the most haunting questions for a Christian reading this book, is how in the world we are to define cheerfulness, satisfaction or happiness in any sense? The limitations of human happiness have become very clear by the time you finish this book and you realize that if indeed societies made the kind of adjustments that Peter Stearns and others call for, there still will be a great happiness gap- a satisfaction gap. I think Peter Stearns is on to something of tremendous importance, indeed even of more importance than his publisher or those who read his book by the mainstream will probably recognize. Nothing on this earth can close that happiness gap. We were not meant to be happy in this age in the way that we long to be happy. We were not meant to be cheerful or satisfied in this age because we are yearning for something else. Christians understand that in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope that he gives us not only for this life but for the life to come. The transformation of these questions from a merely temporal to an eternal sphere changes everything and it’s good to think about that with someone so interesting and provocative as Peter Stearns.
Many thanks again to my guest Dr. Peter Stearns for thinking with me today.
Before I close I want to direct your attention to the release of my new book, The Conviction to Lead: Twenty-five Principles for Leadership that Matters. My concern is to develop effective leaders who have more than administrative skill, who develop more than vision, leaders need to be able to change the hearts and minds of those they lead. In other words, they need the conviction to lead. You can find the book at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com or your local book store.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public, until next time- keep thinking.
I’m Albert Mohler.