I think things were simpler and less complicated in the past but I doubt people were happier. The past is filled with turmoil, upheaval, and uncertainties all of which lead to stress on the person. Most technological advances have made our lives easier and have reduced our stress level.
I agree that we tend to view the past through rose colored glasses. How many times does an older person say fond things about when they were younger? They have forgotten how difficult it is to experience growing up. We look back at the past and see the good parts but we forget about the difficulties and the experience of the moment. We might look back and say the turn of the century was a magical time, but in reality there were a lot of frightened people out there. People built bunkers and stored year long supplies of food. The same could be said for most time periods. Looking back we see simplicity and happiness compared with our own lives but what we see isn't an accurate representation of the time.
I don't think it's really possible to claim that man was happier in the past. The best barometer of man's condition is literature. Look at Shakespeare's plays. Man was still struggling with the same kind of problems (love in Romeo and Juliet, ambition in Macbeth, indecision in Hamlet, honor in Julius Caesar) that we deal with today.
We have a much easier physical existence now. Perhaps man was less harried and more likely to be satisfied with his lot in the past. I'll bet man's happiness has always been about the same as it is now.
I have to agree with the posters who state that they disagree. I guess I look at it as if I believed that the past was a happier place then no hope for today or the future could be found. I have to say that I am happy. If others are not, then they need to make changes. On a whole, every period in time has had its difficulty, but that does not deem naming the past as a happier place. Our world will face more sadness, it will face tragedy, it will be tragic at times. Fortunately, lives are what people make of them. I look around and see happiness every day.
We certainly imagine the past to be a much better place than it was. I study the colonial South, and I can tell you that it was a violent, brutal, unforgiving place to live for white, black, and Indian peoples. I wouldn't trade places with a colonist for anything. Childhood mortality rates were sky-high, existence was always tenuous, and there was always the possibility that everything you worked for might go by the wayside due to drought or some other disaster. I always cringe, then, when I hear someone glorifying the past, wishing they could live along the frontier, or claiming that "things aren't like they used to be." That statement is probably true, but to me it's a good thing.
There are those in every generation who are nostalgic for the past, and that has probably been true for as long as there have been people. As the above responses point out, some people tend to forget what was not good about the past. It is my opinion that such people are not happy because of their personalities, formed by genetics and environment, not because the past is behind them, and that if they were not longing for the past, they would be unhappy about something else. In other words, this longing is a symptom, not the "disease" of unhappiness.
I highly doubt it. We look at the past nostalgically and think it must have been better. We don't think about all the bad parts. For example, we might think about the 1950s (in the US) and think that things were so much calmer and happier then. But we forget they were worried about nuclear war and we forget that women had few opportunities and we forget that people who weren't white were discriminated against. We also forget people could easily die of diabetes and be crippled by polio. Things are so much better today in so many ways.
I agree with your opinion that, largely, happiness has little or nothing to do with past or present. However, I would guess that there are certain pains which many of us are free from today that may have diminished our happiness at certain points in the past. I'm thinking of the quality of housing in today's world, the presence of heat/temperature control, sealed roofs, etc.
Medical science has also come a long way to relieve us of numerous diseases. Of course, the Polio vaccine doesn't make us all happy. We probably shouldn't overlook the likelihood though that this vaccine keeps some of us from being sad.
In the past, life was simple, but life today is very complex.
I think the man was happier in the past... ^_*