Here’s to wishing everyone an optimistic new year.
We, as a society, have accomplished a lot over this past year, and in recent years as a whole. As Steven Pinker has shown us, we are living in the safest day and age ever known to human kind. And as Matt Ridley so aptly put it, we live better lives than any of our ancestors could have ever dreamed.
As an example, the average citizen living on welfare today has a better life than King Louis the 16th (prior to his head rolling) could have hoped for. Even Andrew Carnegie never had it so good. He did not have central heating, nor air conditioning, nor constant (hot and cold) running water. TVs, telephones, instant coffee, bottled water, microwave ovens, let alone the Internet and public transportation, were not available to anyone until very very recently. Next time you ride in a car, think about having to make that ride in a luxurious horse carriage. With the constant smell of horse droppings, no suspension on wooden wheels riding on cobblestone streets (it is no wonder people had to take several days’ rest after going on a journey during those days).
Of course, if our lives are better, the fact is lost on many of us. Why is that?
Let’s demonstrate with an example. Two events happen at the same time: a plane crashes in Fiji and twenty people (whom you do not know) die, while a nurse in the Democratic Republic of Congo successfully saves 20 people (whom you do not know) from a malaria outbreak thanks to a quick intervention. Technically, these events should have the same effect on you. Their only direct effect on your life will be emotional, with one making you sad (and in a melancholic mood), the other making you happy (and in a hopeful mood).
Yet, if those two events happened simultaneously, which would be covered by the local news? Chances are, the plane crash.*
You may now think “Ok, I know where you’re going with this. The news loves their ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mantra and it’s too pessimistic and bla bla. But so what?”
Well, it is this “so what” that matters. If you watch enough television showing enough shooting and killing, you are convinced we’re all going to the proverbial hell in a handbasket. This, in turn, will make you want to think less about our accomplishments and how we can build upon them.
Because, despite our accomplishments, we have quite a bit more to do. Famine, disease, drought, cancer, alzheimer’s, energy, literacy, among others, are all problems we can solve, but we certainly will not do so when we’re in our melancholic/feeling sorry for the human race/being mad at all our leaders/complaining about everything and everyone on Facebook state of mind.
So this is a call for more optimism in the new year. Let us recognize how, despite the downturn, GFC, and myriad other problems, we have actually accomplished very much, and that only by remaining childishly optimistic can we continue to accomplish more.
* I am not really blaming the news agencies here. After all, they show what we want to watch. This instinct comes from our frontal lobe – fight or flight – side. 150,000 years ago good news was nice but could be skipped. But bad news (like an enemy headed your way to kill your tribe) needed your full attention. This has now become distorted so that we rubberneck a plane crash in Fiji.