happinessSome researchers naturally point to advances in technology and social media as culprits. In a 2012 Stanford University study of girls ages 8 to 12, those who reported spending a lot of time on social media admit they are “less happy and less socially comfortable” than their peers who say they spend less time looking at their screens. (However, researchers weren’t able to determine whether the girls’ relative unhappiness is what drew them to social media in the first place.)

 “We have a culture that values and expects happiness,” says Peter N. Stearns, a professor of history at George Mason University and author of the book Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society (NYU, 2012). “But the commitment to happiness in Western culture is relatively modern.”

In a 2012 article for Harvard Business Review titled “The History of Happiness,” Stearns traces humans’ changing attitudes toward happiness, focusing on a “cultural commitment to happiness” in the United States that began around the 1920s and eventually led to the introduction of the song “Happy Birthday” in 1926; the Walt Disney company’s commitment to making its theme parks “The Happiest Place on Earth”; the advent of McDonald’s Happy Meals; and the 1963 phenomenon of the simple but now iconic yellow smiley face, a symbol that was plastered all over novelties like buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers and earned more than $50 million in just a few years.

Then, in Satisfaction Not Guaranteed, Stearns tackles a difficult question: Has living in modern, urban, industrial, affluent societies made us happier or less happy? The answer seems to be simple—we enjoy many perceived advantages compared with how life was centuries ago, such as more abundant food sources, advanced health care, lower infant mortality rates and higher education levels. But it’s actually much more complex than that, he says; we are not much happier than we were before the modern age, and that supports the notion that happiness depends on ourselves and not on our circumstances.

“U.S. happiness has slipped quite a bit in international polls, even though the economy has improved,” Stearns says. “We now rank around number 17, and we used to be in the top 10. Causes seem to center on poor social support, both governmental and associational.”