“Every man builds his world in his own image. He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice.” – Ayn Rand
Only 6% of Americans believe that life is generally getting better. The rest, all 94%, according to a 2017 study, believe the world is getting worse. It’s not hard to understand this cynical mentality when 24/7, everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with negative news about sexual assault, police brutality, racism, and sexism. We acquiesce to the false belief that these horrific events are the status quo.
Yesterday, one of my friends told me that the United States was on a list for the top 10 most dangerous places to live as a woman. I laughed, because I knew this simply could not be factual. He was confused when I asked him: “What sort of data did they use? Have you considered that those calculations might be biased because the U.S. reports more sexual harassment and hate crimes, while in many other countries those same actions are actually legal?”
After doing some digging, I found out the article wasn’t based on facts at all, but the opinions of a mere 550 experts in women’s issues around the world. They ranked a country where women are free not to marry, free to live their lives without permission from men, free to get any job a man can, free to own land, free to own a business, free to hold positions in politics, among many other freedoms, on a list of the worst places for women to live.
This seemed odd to me when in Israel, you need your husband’s permission to get a divorce, or in the Arab Republic of Egypt you need your husband’s permission to leave the house. These countries didn’t make the list of worst countries for women to live in. Perhaps because the United States media boosts so many social justice campaigns like #MeToo, it seems like we are living in the dark ages. While we still have problems to solve, American women’s quality of life is lightyears ahead of what other women face in other developing countries.
Despite the pessimistic view of the world 94% of Americans hold, the world is actually getting better for everyone. When we look at the actual facts, rather than the subjective, emotional narratives people perpetuate, we find that the world, in many areas, has been getting better since the 1800s and will continue on that path of improvement.
Health: Thanks to improvements in modern medicine, as well as sanitation, housing, and diet, only a fraction of newborns die before the age of 5, as compared to more than 40% in 1800.
Poverty: In 1950, 75% of the world was living in extreme poverty, that number dropped significantly to only 10% in 2015.
Literacy: In the 1800s, only about 10% of the world population, aged 15 and older, was literate. Now, about 85% is. Literacy is no longer for the elite: 8 out of 10 people can read and write.
Freedom: Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in a democracy. In the 19th century, nearly everyone lived in autocratically ruled countries.
Education: Education has become more accessible to people around the world, thanks to modern technology. Google’s initiative to get rural Indian women internet access is one example of many.
Why then, if the world has improved, do the majority of Americans believe the world is getting worse? The data and the general beliefs of people don’t line up. People believe that each day is getting closer to doomsday, even though the world is actually vastly better than it was 100 years ago and is continuing on a positive trajectory. I have a few theories as to why this is happening.
Our brains naturally have a negative bias due to the nature of survival. Back when we were primal animals, we had to know what brought us harm and be sure to avoid that danger in order to survive. It made sense to focus on what could go wrong all the time years ago. In the modern world however, while being self-aware is essential to staying safe, focusing on the negative isn’t nearly as essential as it used to be. Studies done by John Cacioppo, Ph.D., then at Ohio State University, and now at the University of Chicago support this hypothesis:
Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm's way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.
We tend to pay more attention to negative experiences, and there is greater neural processing in the brain, which arouses a more intense emotional response than positive experiences do. The media and political figures take full advantage of this. News stations flood their platforms with negative news in order to keep their ratings up. Politicians run smear campaigns to get more attention.
News we consume on the daily has the capability to alter our perception of the world. Whichever platform it might be, unless you are consciously eliminating negative news from your life, it’s hard to avoid. For young people, they see negative stories every day on social media, which is making them believe the world is ending. Seeing negative news all the time, we begin to think that the bad outweighs the good. Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and Harvard professor argues that the news holds great power in skewing our perception of the world.
Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. In many walks of life this is a serviceable rule of thumb. But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.
The people controlling the majority of media want you to tune in, to share, to react, so they show you the most horrific stories with punchy headlines to get you riled up. They found a way to use the negativity bias to their advantage, which is changing people’s perception of the world.
But there’s good news: you have the ability to curate your social media feed. You always have control over what you allow into your brain. Follow positive accounts and keep up with feel good stories. While you can stay up to date on the current news, there’s no need to be checking Twitter headlines all day. The best way you can help the world get better is to focus on becoming the best you, and then offering your strengths to the world.
It Pays To Be a Victim
In 2019, not only are we being bombarded with negative stories, we are being compensated for telling them. The more you argue you’re at a disadvantage, the more assistance you get. Through current government programs, it’s become a virtue to be a victim.
The US government has a budget of 21% of the GDP for 2019 to 2020, and some calculations estimate that the US gov spent 43.2% of the GDP in 2010. An amount, that among other matters, is used for services like Social Security, subsidies, and financial aid. With these systems in place, many of our lives have become more reliant on the government. When asked “Why do we want to believe that things are going downhill?” in a recent interview on the topic, Gregg Easterbrook, author of It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear replies:
Increasingly our lives are tied to government benefits, which isn’t necessarily bad; the expansion of the entitlement state resolved a lot of the structural problems of poverty and destitution. But it also drilled into our heads the words “woe is me.”If you want something from the political system, you claim to be the victim of some injustice. You claim that the world is in terrible condition and that the only possible solution is for government to give you a special benefit. It gives us a huge incentive to claim that things are worse than they are. And the political parties have responded to that.
Queue the oppression Olympics. We see people opting out of working and not getting married so that they can receive more aid from the government. With our current welfare system, we are encouraging people to make decisions that lead to less success long-term so that they can get assistance short-term. We supply people with benefits when they argue that they are helpless. People hold onto this negative mentality, because it gets them more than if they were to adopt a victor mentality. Some people do need extra assistance, but many are shooting way below their full potential in order to qualify for government support. Are people on welfare just lazy? Cato Institute Senior Fellow Michael Tanner doesn’t think so:
Poor people aren't stupid. If they can get more from the government than they can from a job, they aren't going to work. A new study by the Cato Institute found that in many states, it does indeed pay better to be on welfare than it does to work.
Hosting a system that encourages victim mentality keeps people focused on the negative. Which in turn, gives individuals at large the false sense that everything is going poorly and that the world is ill-fated. I wonder: If we were to instead reward hard work people are capable of doing, rather than the work they are not, could we foster a more productive and positive society?
Americans are living in the best time in history when it comes to quality of life. We can communicate with people around the world, poverty is at an all time low, we can get food and water by driving to the nearby store, and we have access to education at our fingertips.
So why then, are people so quick to argue that we’re actually not doing great at all? Yes, problems still exist and not everyone’s life is perfect. But, when we look at a timeline of the history of living conditions, we are all so fortunate to be living in 2019, especially in the USA. In fact, according to best-selling author Gregg Easterbrook:
Most Americans now live better, in the material sense, than any generation of the past. Anybody who tells you he or she would rather live in the 19th century either is lying or has no idea what 19th-century life was like. Almost everybody today lives better than any generation in the past, but they don’t want to admit it. They want to deny it. People say, “It’s so terrible, I don’t live as well as my parents did.” Check your parents at the same age [as you are now], and see what their material living standards were — what their education level was, what their longevity was at that point in life, et cetera — and see whether you’re actually not living as well as your parents did.
Because being disadvantaged has become so celebrated in today’s American culture, people are often ashamed to admit that their lives are going pretty well. On campus, students brag about how how hard their classes are, how much financial aid they need, or what minority groups they are a part of. When I was in school, I rarely heard people expressing their gratitude for the opportunity to pursue a college education. They were so fortunate to be at college, yet all they wanted to share was the inequalities they were facing.
It pays to be a victim, and Generation Z knows it. People give you their attention, people give you their sympathy. And the government? They give you their money.
Gen Z: as the next most influential generation, how can we get out of this negative mindset so that we can make global change? The World Economic Forum suggests that educating ourselves on how the world is actually progressing in a positive direction is the best place to start.
An accurate understanding of how global health and poverty are improving leaves no space for cynicism. Those who are optimistic about the future can base their view on the knowledge that it is possible to change the world for the better, because they know that we did.
Recognize that there are problems in the world, and rather than giving up, let’s follow in the footsteps of those who came before us and fight for a better life. Instead of claiming that the world is doomed, let’s use our unique strengths to make the most improvements we can. We are surrounded by so many resources and technological advantages to help us.
As Ayn Rand said, “People create their own questions because they are afraid to look straight. All you have to do is look straight and see the road, and when you see it, don’t sit looking at it – walk.” The first step you can take is to become the best person you can be. As individuals, we must develop self-awareness, empathy, understanding, grit, and passion before working collaboratively. Once you are confident in the skills you embody, then you are equipped to change the world. We each have a special gift. Cultivate yours, and then put it into action.
Life is getting better. Let’s keep it that way.
Maeve Ronan is a Gen-Z contrarian who writes about the virtues of individualism and liberty. She has interviewed over 100 successful individuals from around the globe, gathering unique and personal insights for her upcoming book on self-improvement. Maeve has been greatly influenced by Ayn Rand's work on individual freedom, which she hopes to share with other curious young thinkers.