In Friday’s column, I noted my shock that a majority of Americans polled believe that life was better 50 years ago.
Why am I surprised?
Because by almost every objective measure, there has never been a better time in history to be alive.
The human life span has nearly doubled in the last hundred years.
Formal discrimination against women and minorities has ended.
Standards of living have never been higher. (U.S. poverty recently hit a record low. Median household income and net worth are near record highs.)
Senior citizens are cared for financially and medically, ending the fear of impoverished old age.
Educational attainment has never been greater.
Technology and medicine are saving, extending and revolutionizing our lives.
Travel – to the next town or the other side of the world – has never been easier or more affordable.
Despite a recent spike in violence, crime is in a long-term cycle of decline.
And – while we have rarely been more polarized politically – the country is at peace.
In the West today, we have tremendous economic and political freedoms.
We work shorter hours, have more purchasing power, enjoy goods and services in almost limitless supply, and have more leisure time than ever before.
I’m not trying to idealize our lives or argue that we live in a perfect world. Far from it.
But the trend is clear: Human well-being is in a decidedly upward arc.
Yet – for decades now – Americans have routinely told pollsters that the country is going downhill, their parents had it better and their children face a declining future.
When I cite facts to the contrary, readers often ask, “If things are so good, why do we feel so bad?”
I believe there are seven primary reasons:
- Lack of perspective. Few truly realize just how tough life was for our ancestors. Over 98% of human history was preagricultural. We hunted and scavenged to survive. Most people were dead by the age of 25, usually of unnatural causes. Even with the advent of agriculture, people performed backbreaking work for a subsistence living. Beginning in the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution improved our lives. But most folks still worked long hours doing tough physical labor. Your great-grandparents would view your life today – with all its modern conveniences – as the realization of some utopia.
- Media negativity. Turn on cable news now or pick up a paper and you’ll quickly conclude that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. You hear about war not peace, corruption not honesty, short-term setbacks not long-term advances. According to one study, over 90% of the articles in The Washington Post have a negative slant. Each day’s news is a highly nonrandom sample of the worst things happening around the world. The media knows that sensationalism and negativity sell. As a result, they deliver the world through a dark prism. And most people buy into it.
- Habituation. Whenever revolutionary new products or developments appear, we rapidly adopt them and they become ho-hum. Heart transplants, space probes, high-speed internet connections, smartphones, 5G, 70-inch Ultra HD screens, 3D printing, artificial intelligence… so what else is new? Here’s a dose of reality: Try navigating your way to the Kennedy Center from the Capital Beltway, in heavy traffic, at night, in the rain… without a GPS.
- The hedonic treadmill. In some ways, we are hardwired to feel dissatisfaction. Psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill. We strive to achieve what we desire. Those things satisfy us for a while. But nothing ever quite does it for us. So we yearn for something more: a better-paying job, a new car, a bigger house, a firmer abdomen, a sexier spouse. It’s a recipe for unhappiness – and the antidote is gratitude.
- Status anxiety. Scientists have found that, to an astonishing degree, our satisfaction with life is tied to positional rankings relative to others. This denies us the contentment we deserve and is an insult to ourselves. Worse, it’s entirely self-imposed. Honoré de Balzac called envy “the most stupid of vices, for there is no single advantage to be gained from it.”
- Apprehension about the future. Despite widespread prosperity, people often remain convinced it cannot be enjoyed because of the coming (take your pick) economic meltdown, political crisis, terrorist attack, population explosion, bird flu epidemic, mineral shortage, debt default, environmental catastrophe, nuclear accident, global pandemic, climate emergency or rogue supercomputer. I’ll be the first to concede that future peace and prosperity are not guaranteed. But there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that alarmists of all stripes have been telling us to cup our groins and crawl into the fetal position for two centuries now, and things really haven’t gone their way. Today, reason, technology and free markets operate as an enormous problem-solving machine, improving our lives in almost every way imaginable. Could things go off the rails at some point in the future? It’s possible, of course – and a good reason to enjoy what you have now. After all, we’re only here for a visit.
- Lack of community. Years ago – before the triumph of streaming and social media – people entertained themselves with dances, dinner parties, social meetings and competitions. That is the exception today. Americans spend an average of more than seven hours a day in front of screens connected to the internet. Yes, part of this is work related. But Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter provide only a superficial connection with other people. Real conversations are awash in facial expressions, tones of voice, body language and other nonverbal cues. There’s a big difference between pushing a “like” button and seeing people laugh and smile.
Looking at this list, you might be tempted to upgrade your perspective, pay less attention to the media, step off the hedonic treadmill, appreciate what you have, quit comparing yourself to the Joneses, log off your laptop, and spend more time in the here and now.
And I wouldn’t disagree.
Our country has always faced serious problems and we always will.
Moreover, many readers are struggling with personal issues – work problems, family problems, health problems or financial problems – just like all people in all places and times.
But we’re grappling with these problems during the most favorable milieu in human history to be alive.
It makes sense to stop and appreciate that.
This is particularly true for investors. After all, if Western civilization really is in imminent peril, why would you risk your hard-earned money in the stock market?
Fortunately, life isn’t just one damn thing after another. It’s getting better for most people in most places in most ways.
Which is not the same thing as everything getting better for everybody in every way.
That would be a miracle… not progress.
People in the West today are living longer, healthier, safer, richer, freer lives than any people in the history of the world.
That’s something to celebrate.
I’ll have more to say on this important topic in my upcoming column in honor of July Fourth.