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!