How’s the world doing? Are we heading in the right direction? Should we look to this new year with dread or hope?
How do you answer these questions:
- Is morality in decline?
- Are people less kind, less honest, and less good?
- Do we need to make America/Canada/The World great again?
- Are rates of violent/property crimes and murder on the rise?
- Is the planet headed for environmental destruction and possibly becoming unlivable?
- Is global health and social and economic justice decreasing?
- Are cancer rates increasing?
- Are clean energy sources increasing too slowly to make a significant difference to climate change?
- Is global poverty increasing?
- Are rates of suicide rising as more people struggle with their mental health?
- Is our international tax system becoming more unfair?
- Is deforestation worsening?
- Is there more plastic in our oceans than we think?
Based on the daily news deluge, our amygdala (the primitive part of our brain triggering emotional responses such as fear and anxiety) answers with a big YES to many — if not most — of these questions. But the data clearly answers no to every question.
The relentless barrage of negative news is an “optical delusion” causing us to lose perspective. That’s rooted in the Availability Heuristic; our tendency to estimate risk and probability by the most recent anecdotes, examples, and attention-grabbing news (especially when it’s dramatic and negative).
Less Fear in the New Year: Counterbalancing the News Doom Loop
Ten years ago, I started the New Year by counterbalancing all the doom and gloom with a review of how much better life is becoming. This became an annual tradition.
It started with “A Dose of Reality: Our World is Dramatically Better.” The following year, we reported, “Despite Dire Headlines, the World is Getting Much, Much Better.” The next year, we added to our long and growing list of positive facts with “Beyond the Doom and Gloom: Over 65 Ways Our World Keeps Getting Better.” After another trip around the sun, we piled on more evidence with “Don’t Get Dragged Down by all the Negative News: Life’s Better Than Ever.” The next year, we continued our reality check with “Don’t Get Sucked in by the Gloomy Headlines: The World’s Getting Better and Better.” We welcomed 2021 with “Despite Our Incredibly Tough Times, Our World’s Still Getting Better and Better.” Two years ago, we kicked off the new year and inaugural publication of The Leader Letter on LinkedIn with Antidotes for the Pessimism Plague. We started last year with For Better or Worse: How’s the World Doing?
“Nattering nabobs of negativism” was a phrase coined by speechwriter William Safire for U.S. vice-president Spiro Agnew to describe the media who opposed the Nixon administration’s policies. It’s an apt phrase for the professional pessimists in the media, especially during tough times or disruptive change. What’s considered “news” or reported as “reality” is overwhelmingly what’s wrong, not what’s right. That’s fake news.
“If it bleeds, it leads” is an old truism in the newspaper business. Random acts of violence are headlines, while random acts of kindness are fluffy end bits on news casts. Clickbait, social media algorithms, and media feeds that go viral are overwhelmingly negative. That’s to drive viewing, purchasing, or voting actions through the tremendously powerful motivation of fear.
Corrective Perspective: Facing Fear with Facts and Reality Checks
As an addicted news junkie, keeping my perspective and staying positive during these challenging times is hard work. To offset mainstream media, I also subscribe to a variety of newsletters, review Tweets/LinkedIn posts, or visit websites that provide facts, data, and stories of how we’re living in the best of times. For example, the opening questions came from “Is Morality in Decline?,” “Moral breakdown isn’t real,” “Most people think the U.S. crime rate is rising. They’re wrong,” “66 Good News Stories You Didn’t Hear About in 2023,” and “What went right in 2023: the top 25 good news stories of the year.”
If you’d like a touch of reality to counter the “aching news” of doom and gloom, check out these links:
- The Progress Network — sign up for Emma’s inspiring weekly newsletter and podcast
- Beautiful News Daily — periodically skimming their colorful charts rebalances with what’s going right
- Human Progress — sign up for their Doomslayer newsletter
- Good News Network
- Reasons to be Cheerful
- Works in Progress
- Future Crunch
- Solutions Journalism
- Our World in Data
- 10 Best Good News Stories from 2023’s TED Conference
- The road ahead reaches a turning point in 2024 — Bill Gates’ blog
- Hopescrolling: 52 fact-based optimistic news from every week in 2023
- 78 Trends showing humanity’s progress
- 100 Positive News from 2023
- Colorful charts of good things increasing and bad things decreasing
- 1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023: A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity — indexed by subject area
- 177 Ways the World Got Better in 2023
- Listen to the CBC’s Matt Galloway 20-minute interview of Future Crunch editor, Angus Hervey, in Was 2023 the Best Year Ever?
- No, 2023 wasn’t all bad, and here are 23 reasons why not — Washington Post editorial board
- Ten Inspiring Signs of Progress From the Past Year
Selective Perspective Make Our Memories Great Again
In a commentary showing that moral breakdown isn’t real, The Progress Network’s newsletter editor, Emma Varvaloucas, writes, “Make America Great Again. Without going into an exegesis of why that slogan appealed to which groups of people, one basic reason why it was successful was because all humans tend to look at the past through rose-colored glasses.
In 2023, six of every ten Americans in one poll said that ‘life for people like them is worse today than it was 50 years ago.’ You can paint all sorts of modern political takes onto that result. At least until you see that Americans have been saying a version of that statement consistently since 1890.”
Emma proves that last point with a link to University of Calgary instructor Paul Faire’s Twitter thread A Brief History of Things Were Better 50 Years Ago. His trips down rose-petalled (selective) memory lane go all the way back to 1890. Not too many of us look longingly at living in the 1800s when we’d have been very lucky to live more than 47 years.
Adam Mastroianni, a psychologist at Columbia University, studies how people perceive and misperceive their social worlds. In his article Is Morality in Decline? he writes, “The reason why negative memories fade faster, and lose their negativity faster, is because we rationalize and reframe them. We distance ourselves from them. If we didn’t do that, then every bad thing would continue to sting just as badly as it did at the time. For example, if you get turned down for your high school prom, that sucks at the time. And 20 years later, it’s maybe a funny story. That’s good. Whereas if you don’t get turned down, at the time it’s great. And 20 years later, it’s a nice memory. I like living with a brain that does that.”
OK, Doomer: Keeping Perspective on Pessimistic Predictions and All That’s Wrong
In his highly enlightening book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker writes, “Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas.”
Commenting on their review of the top ten news sites last year, Future Crunch concludes, “The news is supposed to tell us what’s happening in the world. It doesn’t. Instead, thanks to a combination of commercial pressures, cognitive biases, and cultural habits, news organizations have become modern-day doom machines, showcasing the absolute worst of humanity. There isn’t even a pretense at balance. That’s why we think the biggest problem with journalism today isn’t fake news, or filter bubbles, or polarization, or elitism, or the ongoing obsession with the website formerly known as Twitter. The biggest problem is bad news.”
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