If there is one conventional belief that I find difficult to grasp, it’s the belief that right now life is at an all-time level of misery. This isn’t just a mistaken belief: It’s flat-out wrong. And so I figured I’d write a quick post explaining why I think it’s easy to overcome some of the easy ways to be pessimistic today.
Reason for Pessimism #1: The World Is Going to Shit
Donald Trump, hypersensitive PC college kids, the Alt-Right, the NCAA, Brexit, Justin Timberlake’s half-time performance at the Super Bowl. Things have never been worse.
Reason for Optimism #1: Actually, Things Are Getting Better.
Reason for Pessimism #1 couldn’t be less true. By nearly every measure of prosperity, life is getting better. Whether we’re measuring human longevity, access to clean water, infant mortality, economic well being, murder rates, or nearly any other objective measure of what it means to live a good life, we’re now living in the best time ever to be alive.
So much so, that the average life expectancy today in every country is better today than it was in any country in 1800 (Source: Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies).
The reason things feel bad is because of availability heuristic. We’re mainlining negative media stories 12 hours a day through our various screens and devices. Things aren’t worse. We’re just being led to believe that they are.
Reason for Pessimism #2: Human Nature is Bleak
The other day I watched this video by the brilliant Christoper Boehm where he explained something I had never heard before: Ethnocentrism is a human universal.
According to Boehm, all humans (particularly the males) in their default setting are racist and violent. All humans, given the right conditions, can be prone to acts of murder, violence, and even genocide. What’s also interesting is that we are uniquely violent. The only species that are known to engage in conspecific acts of coordinated violence are us and chimpanzees, our closest relatives. And this has been going on for about six million years, since the days of the earliest proto-humans. That’s a long history of murder and mayhem.
Reason for Optimism #2: Modern Culture Is Making It Better
Murder rates in the US right now are 5.3 out of every 100,000 people, or .0053%. That’s horrible for the victims of those crimes, but a drastic improvement over recent history and even more so over pre-history.
In some modern late Pleistocene-appropriate cultures (modern hunter-gatherers), adult death rates from murder or warfare are as high as 35%! (Hill, Hurtado, & Walker, 2007). What we can infer from these data is that we are perhaps four orders of magnitude less likely to die a violent death than our pre-modern-cultural ancestors were. Or, stated another way, our lives are about 10,000 times safer than they used to be.
Reason for Pessimism #3: Our Institutions Are Rotten
It’s easy to cherry pick ways in which our political institutions are ineffective or worse. Any episode of the Daily Show or John Oliver will show you as much. From excessive punishments for petty crimes to perverse incentives in finances to failure to approve drugs that we know can save lives, there are many ways our institutions are flawed.
Reason for Optimism #3: Our Institutions Are Better than Almost All Institutions Ever
But we’re trying to make them better. We’re trying to make laws more inclusive and accepting. We have laws to help the poor, the downtrodden, and minority groups. Throughout most of history, no one bothered. Traditionally, if you were a small tribe next to a big tribe, the likely result was utter annihilation and extinction.
If you compare our laws today to what they were a generation ago, we’re doing better. If you compare our laws to our laws a little further back, we’re doing way, way better. As Theodore Parker once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Reason for Pessimism #4: There is Human Misery Everywhere, Every Day
With more than seven billion people floating around on this blue orb, someone is going to be suffering at all times. As I wrote last year:
There are about 400,000 murders a year, which averages out to more than 1000 every day. It’s safe to say that at nearly all moments, someone is either killing someone else or in the process of making it happen. That’s a sobering thought. Probably too much for the human brain to fully comprehend or absorb while still functioning. If we did choose to focus on that fact all the time, it would be hard to get motivated or feel good about anything.
Reason for Optimism #4: There Has Never Been Greater Innovation in How to Make Life Better
Today, kind-hearted people are innovating as never before to seek out and find those who most need help and then to design effective ways to help them. Those that want to make a difference have better resources to do it than ever before.
None of this is to say that life isn’t better today for some than for others. Nor is it to say that we shouldn’t work harder to make it better. But it isn’t said often enough that in the aggregate, the evidence shows that life is getting better.
Regardless of what you read, there are more reasons for optimism today than pessimism. The question is: where are we going to direct our attention?
For further reading:
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature
Robert Wright, Nonzero, The Logic of Human Destiny
Thomas Piketty, The Economics of Inequality
John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette