Are Things Really Bad, and Getting Worse?

If you listen to any news, if you are aware of world events at all, you are convinced that things are getting worse. Shocking images of the war in Syria, nuclear threats from North Korea, and the behavior of an unpredictable president in the White House leave you gasping and incredulous.

If you’re anything like me, you struggle daily to avoid it, mute it, drown it out, and distract yourself from it. It’s the cacophony of despair that threatens to drag us down. And I’m not alone—only 6% of Americans believe the world is getting better.

Everyone else believes that things are getting progressively worse. Recent polls suggest that people believe their grandchildren will not live as well as they do, citing fears that we are robbing future generations by wasting irreplaceable resources, and that we are recklessly destroying the ecology beyond repair.

In 2015, A respected, cross-national study reported that 54 percent of people surveyed in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom believe there’s a risk of 50 percent or more that our way of life will end within the next 100 years. And 25 percent of respondents believe that it’s likely that we’ll go extinct in the next century.

If you ask me if I believe any of these things, I’d have to answer “Yes, probably, some of it.”

I know what you are going to tell me, “Get a grip on yourself, Diane”, or “Just stop listening to the news”.

Or maybe you’ll recite a common adage,

“It’s not what happens to you, it is how you respond to it.” or
“You can’t change your circumstances, you can only change  yourself.”

I didn’t always think this way. Not long ago I was more optimistic. I wrote about:

1. The benefits of retirement
2. Seniors as the happiest people on the planet
3. The nature of optimism

But recently, I have felt a nagging pessimism about the world. It dominated my life, and left me feeling frightened and depressed. Last week, I took to my books and the Internet, searching for a more positive view.

And maybe I’ve found it. A report by Ronald Bailey, showed up in my inbox, featuring research by Our World in Data. The study claims that the world is actually getting better, saying that over the past century, the prospects and circumstances of most of humanity have spectacularly improved. Max Roser and Mohamad Nagdy, citing 23 references and numerous studies in their research on Optimism and Pessimism agree, saying that world per capita GDP, has increased between 5-fold and 10-fold since 1900, adding that the average life expectancy has more than doubled in the same period. Best of all is their claim that we live in the most peaceful time in history.

A quote from their study reflects a dramatic departure from some of our popular beliefs:

“Living conditions around the world have improved in important ways; fewer people are dying of disease, conflict and famine; more of us are receiving a basic education; the world is becoming more democratic; we live longer and lead healthier lives.”

Their optimism is based on studies that use hard data and a scientific approach, and is grounded in a world-wide population base. Our World in Data is an online publication that presents  empirical evidence on the development of human living conditions at a global scale.

It leaves me wondering why we don’t hear more of their point of view.
But I already know the answer: As Alex Berezow, writing for the American Council on Science and Health reminds us, bad news sells and good news does not. We’ve seen how proclaiming widespread misery raises ratings of news media and elects politicians. We’ve recently had a real life demonstration about the power and effectiveness of bad news during the recent US election. Giving people a balanced perspective, which often includes a dose of good news, rarely excites anybody.

It seems such a tall mountain to climb—there is so much bad news, so compellingly presented, in television, online, and especially in social media. But thankfully, here is that other perspective, so clearly and succinctly stated by Ronald Bailey, who says:

“Overcoming that pervasive pessimism and restoring the belief in human progress is one of the most important philosophical and political projects for the 21st century.”

I like the way he puts it—it sounds like a challenge, and a call to action!

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26 Responses to Are Things Really Bad, and Getting Worse?

  1. Lynne Spreen says:

    Wow, what an upbeat, data-filled essay, Diane. Thank you!
    I like to think about the good old days when I could safely ride my little bike to the library and school, etc. But back then, we didn’t have a lot of good stuff, either. For example, when I was 32, I had surgery. My doctor told me at the time that, if we were looking at the necessitating condition 30 years previously, I would have died (I’m paraphrasing, of course.) All of us have similar stories, so it’s good to celebrate the positive. But it is hard to think that the globe will be a better place with an anarchistic regime now running the biggest polluter on the planet–a climate change denier heading the EPA for example. My poor grandbabies might never see a live coral reef.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      You will notice that I didn’t elaborate on the good news for the environment. So far, there isn’t much of it! But I will continue to look for it, and write about it. I have those worried thoughts about our grandchildren too, Lynne. So regrettable!

  2. Rummuser says:

    “It is not materialism that is the chief curse of the world, as pastors teach, but idealism. Men get into trouble by taking their visions and hallucinations too seriously.”

    ~ H. L. Mencken

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      So true, Rummuser! So many wars have been fought to prove the ‘rightness’ of one belief over another. Such a waste of human energy and life!

  3. Excellent post Diane. Here’s somethng I try to read every day, it helps me keep my focus where it should be. I hope you like it.

    “An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there’s a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy & truth. “The boy thought about this & asked, ‘Which wolf wins?'” The old Cherokee replied, “The one you feed”.

  4. I’m glad you found something to lift your spirits. My philosophy is “Play your part well and let go of the results.” That plus “Life is uncertain so eat dessert first!”

  5. Janis says:

    I think there are reasons to be optimistic about many things (medical breakthroughs, technology making our lives better)… but also much to be pessimistic about (climate change, technology making our lives irrelevant). There isn’t much I can do on a grand scale, but it does make me feel better to add my voice and support to the opposition.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Yes, Janis, we absolutely need to keep expressing how we feel about the forces that impact us and the world. I’m very pessimistic about climate change—you’ll notice I didn’t cite anything positive about it in my article. Ironically, it may be technology that ultimately improves it! Nobody knows what the future will hold. But I do think we need to stay as optimistic as we can. And most of all, we need to be engaged.

  6. ann says:

    It depends of what aspect of the world you’re looking at — not that I’m pushing for you to become more pessimistic. The environment seems to be getting worse and that surely will have an impact on the health and well being of people who live on earth.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I too am very worried about the environment, and have added my views to the other comments for this article. It’s hard to get at the truth about it. There is so much denial!

  7. Dianne, I think that every age believes they are living through the worst times since man stood upright and got a spear. The Jewish religion believes that as a long as there are 34 righteous people in the world, evil can be kept at bay. Hopefully we will always have many more than that.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I don’t know how the Jewish religion chose 34 as a significant number, but I’m sure there is an explanation somewhere! Futurists often feed the fear that comes with our desire to see what lies ahead. I’m not above speculating about what the future old, particularly as it pertains to automation.

  8. Cookin Mum says:

    Thank goodness. Finally, an article that lets me stop holding my breath. Yes holding my breath. That is how I feel all the time now. I am naturally a positive person, I have been called mary Poppins by my husband. But I must tell you I have been getting more and more frightened and uncomfortable over how things in the media ( all media ) are being played. Sometimes the only programs I can watch are repeats from the seventies or if it is current programming it is about science and the positive progress being made in medicine and agriculture and farming and conservation. So thank you for finally finding something to tell me that makes me feel good, and lets me exhale.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I’ve made a promise to myself that I will search out sound, research-based articles, and hopefully focus on them in my next few posts. Wish me luck! Thanks, Cookin Mum!

  9. You’re right: it’s true, many things ARE better than they used to be. It’s important for us to remember that every morning when we turn on TV news or log on to Facebook and Twitter. Bad news dominates because it sells. As we used to be taught in journalism class: “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that the top story of the day would be something awful like a fire or multi-car accident. We human beings are fascinated by the tragic, awful, and macabre. But we CAN change our mindset and look for the positive instead. Thanks for the reminders!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I’m going to be doing my part, but I will continue to post some bad news articles if the sources are dependable, and particularly if they pertain to the ecology. Thanks, Rin!

  10. Jane Willis says:

    Yes, we would all benefit by allowing in cheery news. One thing I am reading about is how much progress globally towards clean energy!

  11. DJan says:

    For me, the recent election was enough to make me feel very pessimistic about the world and our place in it. And every day I read about environmental progress being reversed by the new administration. But I should start concentrating on the good that is happening in the world. You’re right about that. 🙂

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      The election and its fallout has affected so many people, and not in a good way! Looking for the positive in world situations It can only improve things, so I’ll continue on that tack. I appreciate your comment, Djan!

  12. joared says:

    I might have agreed with that assessment to some extent in 2015, but think there have been significant changes since then. I don’t have a doom and gloom view of the world, but I do believe in many parts of the world, including the U.S., many of the factors that are positives in life for the individual are under serious threat. We are at another of those crossroads civilization encounters throughout the centuries. I would hope for myself, my children, grandchildren and future generations in the U.S., even other nations as in Europe, that the populist movement gets reined in, leaders moving toward autocratic rule — as in Turkey, now U.S. — dictator-like are prevented from doing so. We don’t have to allow this awareness to catapult us into depression but should feel a commitment to each do what we can to preserve our way of govt. — educate ourselves about what’s happening and, at least vote at all levels of govt.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Very true that we have to stay on top of things—constantly work to be informed and aware. It’s not a time for rose-colored glasses, that’s for sure. But many of us still feel the need to look for those little nuggets of good news-it keeps us from falling into a pit of despair!

  13. worzelodii says:

    I am used to the city, and the established tent camp below my window, but an early morning cab ride, Easter Sunday even shocked me. Shadows of the downtown east side growing, the powers that be aught take such a tour…my word.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I live just across the bridge, and walk to town easily. Yes, some areas are deteriorating, for sure.

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