Do humanity’s best days lie ahead or behind us? It’s the eternal question in the post-Enlightenment world. We were forged and evolved in fear; that’s how we survived the jungle. Thus it is reasonable to see the world as one in which hope is an endangered species.
This feeling is valid.
But valid does not mean true. In his book, Factfulness, Swedish professor Hans Rosling described the pervasive cognitive bias that can lead to a feeling of doom: “We must recognise … when we get negative news, and [remember] that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful.”
Although there is a lot of bad news, Rosling reminds us that there is just as much good. But the positive developments are hard to notice because good news, often, isn’t news enough for the media — it doesn’t sell — and gradual improvements are not dramatic enough to be news.
The resulting focus on pain and despair distorts reality, not just because the news may be false or exaggerated, but because it can lock you in an echo chamber, and feeds you with self-reinforcing messages: the world is dangerous; no one is safe; we are doomed. These are feelings that have been amplified in a world led by the likes of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsanaro and, probably soon, Boris Johnson.
But these feelings are not benign. Not only can they have a major effect on an individual’s self-esteem, but negative perceptions of the world can also affect how we interact with it.
Last year, a study published in the journal Science by Harvard professor David Levari and colleagues examined this problem. “In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical,” the study found.
In other words, human brains are wired in such a way that even if the frequency of bad news were to decrease, we would start to expand our definition of bad news and keep finding more of it. One way to deal with this bias is to know it exists and to consciously seek out information that challenges our biases.
So, if you are feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world, remember this: humanity has made considerable improvements in the several dimensions of human well-being. If you were alive even less than 200 years ago, there is a 90% chance that you were illiterate. The likelihood of getting killed in a war is slimmer than it used to be some decades ago. Access to education and learning is at an all-time high and we are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives than at any other point in history.
That doesn’t make irrelevant the news that loneliness and depression are on the rise, and that the wealthier and safer the place you live, the more likely you may be to commit suicide. We just need to replace a story of doom, with a truer story of progress.
One of the lessons we have learnt from our work of equipping young Africans with happiness and resilience skills is this: our fears are boring. These fears, heightened by clouds of doom, distort our acceptance of the opportunities around us.
These fears are the same fears that have been around since people gained cognition: Will I be happy? Will I find love? Will I be healthy?
But we know that what is really exciting about us are the things that lie at the other spectrum of emotion: creativity, collaboration, trust, faith and, as the Harvard Grant Study reminds us, love and mutually rewarding relationships. (The study has tracked 268 men since 1938, during the Great Depression. It is continuing and has expanded to include women and the men’s children.)
Nations have risen out of destruction and poverty, people have overcome heartbreak and trauma, communities have grown through lack and scarcity, and people around the world have linked up to make things better for people they do not know.
We know that the world, and our lives, can get better because we have the example all around us every day.
There is no need to deny all the things that remain wrong in our world, and the work that yet remains ahead. But we must never forget that despair is not the complete story. Reality is more nuanced than that single story, and the reality — our reality today, and the reality of human progress, based on all the data we have from history — is that our world has in its belly an abundance of the good and the beautiful.
This piece was originally published by Mail & Guardian