(Video link here.) We are not alone in feeling that things have never been so bad, that the world is in seriously dire straits. The news that pervades much of our lives paints the bleakest of pictures, fueling anxiety and feelings of powerlessness.
Psychologist Steven Pinker cogently refutes this dark view. In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, he uses 15 different deeply-researched measures of progress — quality of life, safety, sustenance, health, etc — to show how and why the world is getting better, and that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. Bill Gates, who loves the book said: I’d never seen such a clear explanation of progress. The teeny video above sums it up.
Pinker makes two additional points that serve as powerful antidotes to our daily malaise:
—He explains just how the news we tune into daily affects our mindset and why, starting at 13:57 in this talk he gave at the Oslo Freedom Forum (below). He helps to cultivate a more holistic view, in which the dark news lives within the bigger context of human progress. The essential message: watch how much you consume.
It reminds us that the news is a systematically misleading way to understand the world…You get the impression that the world is a more dangerous place than it ever has been.
We find that asking THIS question is hugely helpful:
—We love PInker’s insight into how to navigate a time in which powerful authoritarian leaders threaten to undermine many good works. Sarah Bakewell in the New York Times‘ summarized it well:
…he argues that catastrophism is itself a risk — that is, the pessimistic tendency to fix on the worst imaginable outcome, and to panic. Authoritarian populism itself has fed on the feeling that everything is going wrong: that crime and terrorism have run amok, that immigration is disastrous and that the world has lost its ethical direction in some terrible way.
Meanwhile, fear and despair play havoc with the opposition too. In general, people are more likely to work constructively if they think problems are solvable, or that progress has already been made and can be extended. As Pinker says, considering the fact that we have not yet blown the world up in a nuclear war, our best approach is “to figure out what has gone right, so we can do more of whatever it is.” Optimism does not mean lying back and relaxing. He cites the economist Paul Romer, who distinguishes the “complacent optimism” of a child waiting for presents with the “conditional optimism” of a child who wants a treehouse, and gets hold of the wood and nails to make one. Someone who thinks a treehouse is impossible, or assumes someone will instantly come and knock it down, is unlikely ever to start hammering.
Optimism does not mean lying back and relaxing…