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Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society

By Peter Stearns

Publication Year: 2012

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix

My gratitude to Sam Asin for indispensable assistance with research. Thanks to Clio Stearns not only for help with research but for valuable readings of the book as well. Gratitude to Deborah Stearns for guidance in the happiness literature along with her constructive readings of the book. Laura Bell...

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1 Introduction: Being Cheerful and Modern

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pp. 1-12

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...

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PART I. The Modern and the Happy: A Tenuous Embrace

Measuring happiness aims at an elusive target. For all the inherent imprecision, however, we really do know that there is no full correlation between modernity and happiness. In Western and particularly American society...

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2 The Gap: Happiness Scales and the Edge of Sadness

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pp. 15-28

Modernity lends itself to two related assessments: an evaluation of key modern trends in terms of their actual, and usually complex, impact; and a discussion of relationships between a society’s achievement of modernity and the levels of satisfaction or happiness of its members. This book will actually...

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3 Component Parts: Modernity and Ideas of Happiness and Progress as Historical Forces

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pp. 29-58

The basic framework of modernity began to emerge from the late 18th century onward, initially in the West. Not only obvious trappings, like new steam-driven factories, but also more personal signs, like a new commitment to comfort, mark the inception of trends that still, broadly speaking, continue. The novel interest in happiness emerged at the same point, and has...

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PART II. Maladjustments in Modernity

Several factors, not surprisingly, contribute to the gaps between modernity and satisfaction, and to the retreat of large progressive visions. The first chapter in this section deals with the easiest—and undeniably important—explanations, in a (modern?) impatience with undue gratitude for past...

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4 Modernity’s Deciencies

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pp. 61-68

We’ve touched already on some of the key reasons modernity can go a bit stale after initial enthusiasms. Ingratitude and what-are-youdoing- for-me-today expectations are high on the list, but the small but pressing agenda of modern missteps looms even larger. Major historical change always has down...

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5 False Starts and Surprises: Making Modernity More Difficult

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pp. 69-110

This chapter deals with four aspects of modernity—gender, sexuality, aging, and eating—that incorporate immensely promising changes away from traditional patterns. In contrast to the trends of war or environmental degradation, we’re not discussing measurably “bad” outcomes. Nor, however, are...

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6 The Dilemmas of Work in Modernity

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pp. 111-128

Polls taken of British factory workers by the 1950s and 1960s neatly defined the problem of figuring out how work stands in modern society: a majority professed some real job satisfaction, but nearly as large a majority said they hoped their kids would find different opportunities. The sense that options...

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PART III. Great Expectations

In at least two crucial aspects of life, the huge gains brought by modernity quickly generated additional expectations that equally quickly began to cloud the gains. We turn in this section to the “what have you done for me today?” side of the modern mentality, where real gains are soon eclipsed by ambitious...

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7 Death as a Modern Quandary

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pp. 131-168

..Modernity and death are not friends. The relationship is not as dreadful as some observers have claimed, citing death as the “new modern taboo,” for some constructive adjustments have occurred. But death does not have a clear modern welcome and, ironically, earlier ideas of a good death have gone by the boards. Many adults die less well than their counterparts did...

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8 Century of the Child? Childhood, Parenting, and Modernity

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pp. 169-212

Many American polls from the later 20th 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. A study by Daniel Gilbert suggests that the average American...........

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9 Born to Shop: Consumerism as the Modern Panacea

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pp. 213-254

Consumerism—no surprise here—has become a fundamental aspect of modern societies. It accumulates the most obvious bundle of steadily rising expectations, seemingly boundless in some instances. Increasing commitments by individuals, families, and societies at large to amass goods not...

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Conclusion: Shaping Modernity

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pp. 255-260

It’s time to adjust the adage, given what we know about the wide history of modernity. Those who do not know the past may indeed be condemned to repeat some of the past’s mistakes. That is the conventional statement, still valid. More to the point, however: those who do not know the past cannot...


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pp. 261-264


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pp. 265-269

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About the Author

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pp. 270

Peter N. Stearns, Provost and University Professor at George Mason University, has authored or edited over 115 books. He has published widel...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814783634
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814783627
Print-ISBN-10: 0814783627

Publication Year: 2012