When Bill Gates said it was his favorite book, I had to read it. “Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” by Stephen Pinker provided some very interesting insights. He describes in concrete numbers how the world has improved. Yet, many people are not any happier than when the world was a much worse place to live.
100 years ago, the average man’s life expectancy was 51. The concept of retirement at 65 seemed very distant. 100 years ago, women were not allowed to vote. 100 years ago, people would die from a scratch that became infected. 100 years ago, a loved one moving to another state or country might mean never seeing or talking to them again. Written letters were the only way to bridge distance. During World War II, mail would commonly take three months to reach its destination.
Today many people are living beyond 100 years. Those being born today may be able to expect to live that long on a routine basis. Today women are an important part of our political world. Today a scratch can be easily addressed with an antibiotic. We have an amazing array of solutions to health challenges and ways to live productively as we age. The distance between loved ones is much shorter. We can drive or fly distances that were unimaginable 100 years ago. We can make long distance calls for almost nothing. We can use video calls to frequently engage distant loved ones visually. Even those in distant wars have immediate communication through email and Skype video calls.
My grandmother’s quote, “Those who talk about the good-old-days have bad memories,” is really verified by the data provided by Pinker.
Many people think they are very busy. They imagine the good-old-days were less busy. Compared to 1950, workers spend 25% less of their time working today. The percentage of working mothers who spend two hours per day with their children today is double the percentage of hours stay-at-home mothers spent in 1965.
On the world stage, there are significantly fewer wars, the poverty level has been dramatically reduced, health has dramatically improved, the number of mothers/babies who die in childbirth is a fraction of what it was not long ago, and the number of people dying from famine is enormously reduced. The well-being of the human race has dramatically improved. (I’ve missed hearing that in the daily news.)
We have lost track of the national jubilation. There was national celebration in 1955 when Jonas Salk proved to have a polio vaccine that came into wide commercial use in the 1960’s to eradicate that dreaded disease in much of the world. Today, spectacular advances go mostly unnoticed. Bill and Melinda Gates have contributed to the improved health in Africa and other locations. They are examples of many people who are choosing to help make the world a better place.
Why are we not walking around giving each other high fives for the wonderful progress in our lives and the lives of those around us? Two of the causes that Pinker would identify for this disharmony are:
- Broad ignorance of the progress we’ve made. Most people think the good-old-days were much better than they were. (Ask my grandmother.)
- Our tendency to measure our well-being compared to the perception we have of others. We tend to measure our well-being compared to others today rather than the world 50 or 100 years ago.
To exacerbate the issue, we are surrounded by the exaggerated stories of the extremes in well-being, as well as stories of destruction. It is human nature to pay attention to the instant success, or the headline catastrophe. For example, people fear terrorists even though the risk is hundreds of times higher that one will be hit by lighting, or win the lottery, than to be hurt by a terrorist.
Happiness is a choice
I had an uncle who lived a middle-class life. When his wife would get discouraged about life, my uncle would drive his wife to “poor side of town” to give her a different perspective. I cringe at the thought.
However, if we take an objective look at life 50 or 100 years ago (for the rich and the poor) we live much better lives today. We have much to be thankful for today. Thank you for the recommendation Mr. Gates!
We can choose to celebrate and be happy today. That is my choice.