Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon (Grove/Atlantic, $17). Before asking whether humanity is "doing better" today, it's best to ask, "better at what?" McMahon tackles that question through a beautiful, accessible history of thought about the life well-lived — what it is that people through the ages have said they're striving for.

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill (Anchor, $17). Being alive is an important prerequisite for pretty much any definition of the good life. McNeill's sweeping history shows what happens when infectious diseases strike at epidemic scale and the myriad effects those epidemics have had on political history and society.

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (Penguin, $20). Violence, like disease, can make life nasty, brutish, and short. Pinker demonstrates that warfare, murder, rape — and even cruelty to animals — are on the wane planetwide.

Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt (Norton, $16). Human rights as we understand them today were conceived during the French Revolution. Hunt explores what lay behind their creation and how that history has shaped the pursuit of individual liberties. However often declarations of rights are ignored, they increasingly define the norm against which leaders are judged wanting — and that itself is evidence of progress.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes (Norton, $20). Landes tackles the biggest economic question there is: Why did the West grow so rich over the past 200 years while, until recently, the rest of the world's economies lagged behind? There's much to disagree with in his analysis, but the sweep and the style of this 1998 book are incredible.

A New Green History of the World by Clive Ponting (Penguin, $18). Now that the developing world is finally catching up with the West economically, will progress be sustainable? Ponting lays out the role of the environment in shaping history — and the growing role of humanity in shaping the environment.

Charles Kenny's new book, The Upside of Down, explains why life in America might get better as the nation's economic dominance wanes.