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Modernity and happiness: The case of Germany


  • Bulmahn, Thomas


The question asked in this paper is whether modern societies enable the individual to lead a happier life. It was hoped during the Age of the Enlightenment that rationally designed social conditions would lead in the future to greater prosperity, more security and increa- sed happiness for all. Only a little of this optimism has survived into the twentieth centu- ry. In their studies on anomie, sociologists such as Durkheim, Merton and Sennett have drawn attention to the darker sides of progress. Current theories of anomie – explicit social critiques – entirely ignore the successes of modernity and discuss only its crises. In these theories, anomie is described as a structural feature of modern societies, whose destructive consequences are manifested by growing alienation, increasing social isolati- on and rising suicidality. Empirical analyses of data from Germany show, however, that these theses diverge from the reality. Despite rapid processes of modernisation, anomic patterns of perception and behaviour have not become more widespread over the last 20 years; on the contrary, in some areas anomie has decreased significantly. Proceeding from this insight, this article proposes a correction of those models of anomie that are blind to progress. The crises of modernity are confronted with its successes, which have helped considerably to reduce anomic reactions and to stabilise subjective well-being at a high level. Finally, the article points out that this is not a stable equilibrium, rather that temporal and structural imbalances may occur in the course of modernisation processes, whose magnitudes may, however, be curbed – albeit not entirely or in every respect.

Suggested Citation

  • Bulmahn, Thomas, 2000. "Modernity and happiness: The case of Germany," Discussion Papers, Research Unit: Social Structure and Social Reporting FS III 00-402, Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).
  • Handle: RePEc:zbw:wzbssr:fsiii00402

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Wolfgang Glatzer & Mathias Bös, 1998. "Subjective Attendants of Unification and Transformation in Germany," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 43(1), pages 171-196, February.
    2. Zapf, Wolfgang, 1994. "Die Transformation in der ehemaligen DDR und die soziologische Theorie der Modernisierung," EconStor Open Access Articles, ZBW - German National Library of Economics, pages 128-143.
    3. Robert Cummins, 1998. "The Second Approximation to an International Standard for Life Satisfaction," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 43(3), pages 307-334, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Chau-kiu Cheung & Kwan-kwok Leung, 2007. "Enhancing life satisfaction by government accountability in China," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 82(3), pages 411-432, July.
    2. Francis Heylighen & Jan Bernheim, 2000. "Global Progress I: Empirical Evidence for ongoing Increase in Quality-of-life," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, vol. 1(3), pages 323-349, September.
    3. Aaron Ahuvia, 2002. "Individualism/Collectivism and Cultures of Happiness: A Theoretical Conjecture on the Relationship between Consumption, Culture and Subjective Well-Being at the National Level," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, vol. 3(1), pages 23-36, March.
    4. Chau-kiu Cheung & Kwok Leung, 2010. "Ways that Social Change Predicts Personal Quality of Life," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 96(3), pages 459-477, May.
    5. Harbi, Sana El & Grolleau, Gilles, 2012. "Does self-employment contribute to national happiness?," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 41(5), pages 670-676.
    6. Wolfgang Glatzer, 2000. "Happiness: Classic Theory in the Light of Current Research," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, vol. 1(4), pages 501-511, December.

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