MUNICH — What a crappy year you were 2016. With your terrorist attacks, the British going mad with Brexit and the Americans electing a Twitter troll as commander-in-chief. In Syria and other war zones, people were drowning all year in blood. On top of all of that, many of our most beloved artists and performers left the stage, forever, last year. And yet ...
Yes, folks it is high time to interrupt all of this turn-the-calendar mourning and shout out loud and clear: People around the world have never been better, healthier and happier. It's the mind's natural predisposition to record only bad news, and no doubt there has been plenty. But that's also one reason why all the good news goes unnoticed – Another reason is that positive developments often happen more subtly, they build up over decades and therefore never really make big blips on the human emotional radar.
People have forever been convinced that things have just changed for the worse. In a 2015 survey, only 6% of Americans claimed the opposite. In 2010, 2005 and 2000 the number of optimists was similarly low. But such a sentiment deceives, says Max Roser, an economics professor from the Oxford University.
According to Roser's statistics, the number of people living in poverty has been steadily dropping, relative to the world population. 1981, 44% of the inhabitants of the earth lived in life-threatening precarious conditions; in 2015 the number has dropped below 10% — Even as the total world population has continued to climb. Over the same time period, ever fewer people have to go through life illiterate, infant mortality is sinking across all social classes, life expectancy is on the rise worldwide and despite current conflicts like the one in Syria, historically compared, the number of people dying by violence is dropping.
Still, the optimists continue to be far outnumbered. Surveys show that people are convinced that extreme poverty is on the rise, that there is more crime and less and less hope for the future. Perception is calibrated by the force of negative events, which, on top of that, usually occur with a bang: an earthquake, a humanitarian catastrophe, they all trigger great emotions. Long-term trends for the better, on the other hand, hardly ever produce dramatic images, nor are adept at providing a convincing narrative. Good news happens in silence and passes right past the attention of the masses.
This in a tragedy in its own right. Being submerged by an image of the world that is both unrealistic and negative creates nothing but fear. And fear, we know, usually leads to bad decisions. Some at least we are stuck with for awhile.