Better or Worse?

Which of the following statements would you choose as most correct?

  1. The world is getting better.
  2. The world is getting worse.
  3. The world is neither getting better nor worse.

A team led by Hans Rosling — a medical doctor, professor of international health, and advisor to the World Health Organization — asked that question along with others to people in 30 countries. A strong majority of the respondents to the survey indicated the world was getting worse.

Responses to other questions in the survey indicated people aren’t aware the world has improved. Less than 10% of the people polled knew extreme poverty in the world has declined by half over the past 20 years. Less than half the people polled knew life expectancy in the world was 72 years. People were consistently more negative in their outlook than facts dictated.

We all tend to yearn for the “good old days” when we were young, summers were endless, we had less responsibilities, and our lives were much less complicated. However, those may be the only things better about the “good old days.”

In 1800, 85% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Twenty years ago, 29% percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty (remember “children are starving in China”), but only 9% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty today.

In 1800, the average life expectancy across the world was about 30 years of age. About half the children born died before their 5th birthday. By 1973, most babies survived, and the average life expectancy had increased to 60 years. Over the past 40 years, advances in health care, improved farming practices and reductions in world poverty have improved the average life expectancy to 72 years.

Other things are better, too. The percentage of people living in democracy increased from 1% in 1816 to 56 % in 2016. The percentage of 1-year-old children receiving at least one immunization increased from 22% as late as 1980 to 88% by 2016. Deaths from natural disasters has declined from more than 1,000 per year in the 1930’s to 72 per year. Child labor, ages 5-14, declined from 28% in 1950 to 10% in 2016. Undernourishment has declined from 28% from 1970 to 11% in 2016. Despite the recent school shootings and increasing calls for gun control, the number of violent crimes reported declined from 14.5 million in 1990 to 9.5 million in 2016. Finally, internet availability has increased from 0% in 1980 to 48% today. A lot of people are better off, and the world is improving.

If so many things are better, why do so many people think the world is getting worse? One reason is selective, opportunist or exploitive reporting. We rarely hear about good things, successes or advances. Journalists, even Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, are fixated on everything wrong with our world, our businesses, or our leaders. People who have accomplished nothing in their careers constantly criticize those that are doing things – often good things. At other times, they use negative approaches and scare tactics to advance their personal agendas or beliefs.

When was the last time you read the economy is better, the tax changes have increased the standard of living, someone has served us well, or our quality of life is better? Nor do you often hear positive messages from our leaders. Politicians emphasize all that is wrong with their political adversaries instead of their own positive attributes. Very few people can run for office without being criticized for some problem they have had.

People are emotional. If they don’t like what they feel about the direction of the world, they tend to ignore objective evidence of positive things in the world. When people have negative feelings, they conclude that nothing is improving, nothing we have tried has worked, and they lose confidence in leadership. They become increasingly more negative and radical, supporting more extreme actions when things are actually very good in the world.

The world is too negative. We need to take responsibility for our successes and failures. We need to think a lot more, expect more of the media, and demand more of our leaders. We need to recognize and support those people who are doing positive things and reject those who only criticize what others are doing. The world is a better place, and everyone should celebrate that success.

I hope you have a good month.

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