“Optimism is the only realism.” Nick Murray
How does one manage to stay upbeat when it appears much of what you read and hear these days is disturbing, sometimes even tragic? Well, appearances can be deceiving – taking a step back and examining the facts is a way to gain the perspective that will allow you to properly adjust your attitude. Let me suggest you read the book It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear by Gregg Easterbrook, which confirms my suspicion about both the ongoing positive developments in the world and the negativity in the news media that wants to convince us that humanity is going to hell in a bucket.
Easterbrook details the rise of what he calls “declinism” – the commonly-held notion that the world is in a downward spiral. The main culprit? It’s access to media via electronic devices – with the proliferation of smart phones, anxiety-inducing information is literally right in our face anytime we look at the news on the web. The pervasive message is that negative events are happening everywhere, at all times of the day and night, maybe even right outside your door. And that things are only getting worse. Bad news doesn’t just travel fast anymore – it travels instantly.
Now why might the media be inclined to do this? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that bad news creates fear, and this fear keeps people tuning in. Which justifies the revenue stream media outlets generate from advertisers. This should be obvious, yet many (the majority?) of people can’t kick the habit of reflexively checking the news, just like cigarette smokers who know their habit leads to health challenges but can’t keep from lighting up. (As an aside, people who are glued to the endless news cycle get exposed to a glut of product ads, which leads them to buy more stuff, so it’s actually good for the economy.)
While I don’t deny there are unfortunate, even disastrous situations occurring in the world, the vast majority of us have it better than ever. I’m putting my twist on some of the areas Easterbrook covers to explain why this is generally the best time in human history. (I won’t bore you with facts and figures that are well-documented in the book.)
- Food supply When I was a kid at dinner my parents would sometimes say, “Finish what’s on your plate – people in other parts of the world are starving!” To which I’d reply, “Why don’t we pack up the leftovers and send it to them?” Thanks to a multitude of agricultural breakthroughs, world hunger is way down from early 20th century, using a fraction of the farm labor it took to produce the food we enjoy today. In that time frame we’ve has gone from a hunger problem to a different kind of food problem here – about one in three Americans is obese. Chew on that if you will. (Pun intended.)
- Longevity My dad shared with me that he had a younger brother who died suddenly at age 13 from food poisoning. Do you think my Uncle Tommy would have lived if he had that same problem today? Medical science has had amazing breakthroughs over the past century: Heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and a multitude of other conditions are no longer a death sentence. Ancient plagues that used to wipe out thousands have vanished. More recently, alarming news reports suggesting that Swine Flu and West Nile Virus would turn into widespread epidemics quietly disappeared from the headlines once these outbreaks were contained. I had a bad knee from years of playing pick-up basketball that in the past would have had me hobbling along with a cane – thanks to a replacement I’m walking, bicycling and swimming pain free. And consider that we’re in the “33% bonus round” — the average person today has an additional 20 years of life expectancy from a century ago.
- The environment If you live in a large city, do you recall a time when the sky had an orange-ish brown tinge to it on a clear day? Tell me — when was the last time your city had a smog alert? So we breathe easier today. The once-fetid Chicago River has a wide variety of recreational activities going on in and around its shoreline these days. With the clean Lake Michigan water here, why would I ever buy bottled water? It may be hard to believe but the United States has more trees now than it did a century ago. Climate change & global warming are concerns – I’m confident that the same type of brilliant minds that cleaned up our air, water and forests can tackle these challenges.
- The economy 1929 ushered in the Great Depression; 2008 saw the onset of the Great Recession. No mistaking that these were difficult times, and there’s no guarantee that there can’t be another economic collapse. And yet, since its low point of around 40 in 1932, the stock market is now in the 25,000 range – even with my Chicago Public School education I understand this is astounding growth. There are jobs if you have the desire to work, and the opportunity to take classes to improve your situation if you feel you’re underemployed and underpaid. (You get paid more when you become worth more – that’s the way it works.) And if you don’t like working for others you can decide to start your own business – hard, but not impossible. (Hey – if I did it …)
- Violence Yes, people get murdered daily. There are areas in Chicago that I would not venture into because of gun violence there. But overall, I have a much higher probability of drowning (which means I’d better stay afloat at the Y pool) than by getting shot in the street where I do go, and I suspect it’s the same for you. It’s also much more likely that an auto accident would end a person’s life, despite the safer cars we drive today. And you may find it hard to believe but deaths by war in the world since the end of World War II have significantly declined. Maybe the much-maligned United Nations actually does act as a deterrent to nations taking up arms.
- Technology The evolution of personal computers coupled with the mass adoption of the world wide web since the mid-1990’s has made life significantly more convenient for everyone. A smartphone contains more processing power than the garage-sized Univac, the first commercial computer sold the early 50’s. At my fingertips is all of humanity’s collective knowledge on any subject I care to investigate. We manage our finances on line without having to wait in line at a bank. No more trips to a library, bookstore or music shop – you can download a book/audio at midnight if you’d like. You can summon a driver with a flick of your finger on a ride share app. (I can’t – I have a flip phone by choice. But that’s another story for another time …) And, thanks to email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., you can stay in virtual touch with as many people you have the bandwidth for – the problem might be spreading yourself too thin. (If so, would you want to go back to snail mail and dial-up phones? I didn’t think so …)
- Government The news media is all-pro at polarizing people on today’s issues – with the daily publication of acrimonious charges hurled by our politicians at each other, it’s their cash cow. At this time half our population thinks we’re becoming a fascist police state, the other half thinks were going totally pinko-commie. But c’mon – do you really believe there’s a better form of government somewhere else? Try comparing how the dictatorships of the past century (Russia, China, Germany & Japan during WW2, etc.) have fared vs. our system – so far it appears we’re undefeated in terms of both power and economics. (My personal opinion, which you can take with a grain of salt: Our federal republic has such a strong foundation it functions well despite our elected officials.
My prescription To help you fill your half-full glass, here are three simple exercises you can try right away to help you adjust your attitude:
- Take a “news fast” by refraining from taking in TV, radio and web news reports for a week. Let me know how your world looks to you after that.
- Meditate The best way to silence any negative chatter in your head that is reinforced by negative news is to meditate. No – you don’t need to shave your head, chant in Sanskrit or sit in the lotus position. Here’s a 5-minute beginner’s meditation session – try it, you’ll like it!
- Be Grateful. If you’re reading this, you’re in the world’s “lucky sperm club.” You have a house with electricity, heat, AC, indoor plumbing and running water. You have more than enough to eat – just look at your waistline. You’ve got at least a few people (or a dog or cat) who love you. You’ve got employment that hopefully engages your talents. You own a few toys that bring you joy, and have the leisure time to play with them. Consider that 100 years ago this may not have been true. So decide to give a silent “Thank You!” to all this and realize you are blessed with abundance right now.
Bottom line If you ever find yourself longing for “the good old days,” I hope I’ve helped you realize that THESE ARE the good old days. May you drink deeply from the glass that is continually half full, and on a good day, overflowing. Cheers!