What is your automatic response to the question “Is the World Getting Better or Worse?”
If you are like a lot of people your answer to this question is something like, “Well, obviously, it is getting worse.”
And if you are anything like me, and many folks, you could martial a lot of evidence to prove your point. For instance, you might point to economic instability, gun violence, the pandemic, and environmental degradation to bolster your claim.
In fact, sometimes it feels like everywhere we turn, we see more bad news about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
“Trinity”. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
And if you are like a lot of people, all the bad news you see and hear around you can feel extremely discouraging at best and paralyzing at worst.
We feel stuck, anxious, depressed, angry, and overwhelmed.
These feelings are understandable. There are indeed bad things in the world, and there is no sense denying them.
But what if this isn’t the whole story?
In the last few years, I have become increasingly interested in the work of Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Pinker regularly argues something intriguing. Namely, he argues that in several major areas that we can measure statistically, the world is getting dramatically better.
And if that sounds doubtful, here is some of the evidence he presents to support this thesis. By the way, the following evidence is from Pinker’s Ted Talk “Is the World Getting Better or Worse”, and below I have cited the minutes in his talk at which you can find this information.
The homicide rate is down (1:56).
World poverty levels have decreased (1:56).
Pollution levels are down (1:56).
We have almost half the world wars we did just thirty years ago (1:58).
“Chesire Regiment Trench Somme 1916”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
We have fewer autocracies (1:58).
And we have fewer nuclear weapons (1:58).
You can also read more about Pinker’s research here: New Evidence that the World is Getting Better.
And here is Pinker’s book that makes his extended argument. You can purchase The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined on Amazon or your local bookstore:
And by the way, these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. Did you know that since the nineties, life expectancy around the globe has risen, child mortality has fallen, violent crime rates in the US have decreased, and maternal mortality rates have declined dramatically?
You can read more about this here:
So if things are getting better, why do people generally feel so horrible about the world?
Pinker points out that humans have a natural bias towards pessimism. It’s called a negativity bias. There is, in fact, an evolutionary advantage to a negativity bias. In the violent hunter gatherer world (and other time periods inhospitable to human existence), a fine-tuned sensitivity to threat helped us survive.
You can read more about this here: Negative Bias: Why We are Hardwired for Negativity.
But unfortunately, our negativity bias can cause us to ignore the way things are improving dramatically in the world and to focus continually, instead, on threat, pain, and tragedy. Pinker notes that the problem becomes even worse when we compare violent and disturbing headlines of today with our rose-colored memories of the past.
“Cleric, Knight, Workman”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Stuck in Bad News
The result is that we increasingly feel hopeless, afraid, and full of despair, even though contemporary society is dramatically safer, healthier, and more just and equal than past societies. As a result, our news channels get stuck in a cycle of crushing pessimism.
In fact, in his Ted talk, Pinker shows evidence suggesting that our news headlines have increasingly gotten more negative and pessimistic, even as the world is getting better in the ways previously mentioned.
Now Pinker does acknowledge the seriousness of various threatening problems we face in the world today like global warming, gun violence, and the rise in authoritarianism around the world. In addition, Pinker doesn’t argue that progress is inevitable. For instance, he notes that progress only happens when people care about world problems and work to solve them.
But he argues, and I agree with him, that recognizing the progress we have made in the world is important. It gives us, among other things, strength and hope to keep going.
But is this, in fact, true? For instance, some might worry that if we believe the world is getting better, we might stop trying to solve some of the serious problems we currently face. However, I think the opposite is generally true for people who care deeply about the world.
Recognizing the significant progress we have made can help us when we feel overwhelmed by world suffering. Such knowledge of our progress can give us a sense of agency. And it can help build intelligent optimism.
Intelligent optimism is, among other things, a sense that the future holds promise and that we can make a difference. It grounds itself in clear research and good statistics. In other words, intelligent optimism is evidence-based. It is quite different from optimism that proceeds from blind hope, lazy thinking, or from a refusal to acknowledge suffering.
Increasingly, I have been treating intelligent optimism as a survival skill, which makes sense to me.
“Static Treatment”, National Museum of Health and Medicine. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Here are a few things I have been doing to build intelligent optimism.
Cultivating Intelligent Optimism
While I still read the regular news, I first read articles from the Good News Network. These articles are full of true stories of people showing kindness and solving real-world problems.
I also love watching YouTube videos or documentaries about people who are solving problems creatively in their community. Here’s one of my favorite recent short documentaries about a community project in New Zealand called The Remakery: Together We Grow.
It’s delightful and inspiring, and it provides information anyone can use to start a similar project in their own communities.
I also love finding concrete ways I can help solve problems in my own community. For example, I am going to start helping with a community garden. This not only allows me to be outside with other people taking care of the earth, it helps to provide high quality food access to everyone in the community.
Lastly, I like to read books by people who both recognize the suffering in the world and take active steps to solve problems and share loving kindness. Here is one of my favorite recent books of this sort, World as Lover, World as Self. It is by Joanna Macy who dedicated her life to helping people express their despair over the environment so that they could move through their painful feelings and find solutions. You can find World as Lover, World as Self on Amazon or at your local bookstore.
Intelligent optimism is wise and loving. And it’s a great way to build our capacity to save the world one community at a time.
By the way, here are some other posts you might like to read:
If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing on social media and consider hitting the Follow button at the bottom or right of this page.