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“The world has never been better and very few of us know it.” That was the hook for a talk given by the ‘celebrity’ cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker in Bogotá recently. It’s also the thrust of his latest book, Enlightenment Now.
No one can really argue with the various statistics that he rhymes off as to why the human race has never had it so good. We’re living longer, peace rather than war is the norm, global poverty levels have dramatically fallen while the world’s calorie intake has increased. What’s more, it’s not that it’s just that oft-vilified top one per cent reaping the benefits. Everyone is.
So, compared to the not-too-distant past, current challenges notwithstanding and acknowledged (climate change, populism and such like), it’s all positive, it’s progress.
To be honest, it surprises me somewhat that very few people, according to Pinker anyway, know this. These health & safety and material advancements are obvious, aren’t they?
Of course, from a news media perspective, one could be forgiven for thinking the opposite was true. Pinker, with good reason, does lay an amount of the blame at the media’s door for all the negativity swirling around the planet.
“That we are statistically on Easy Street these days matters little at the individual level.”
Indeed, I recall my late sister and her husband taking a decision a few years back not to read, watch or listen to the news because it just depressed them. We can easily lose sight of the good when we’re consuming a large, unhealthy dose of the bad.
So we’re agreed, at a macro level, there’s never been a better time to be alive.
Yet, that’s the crux of it for me — the macro level. From the individual viewpoint, this ‘zoomed out’ approach very often doesn’t hit home, quite literally.
While we’re more connected than ever and can converse and share experiences with people on the other side of the planet in an instant, virtually albeit, we still have to live out our lives, tackle the trials and tribulations that we personally face, on a daily basis. The fact that we are statistically on Easy Street compared to our ancestors matters little in the here and now. It’s all relative.
What’s it all about?
As that other celebrity Canadian speaker and psychologist, Jordan Peterson, puts it, “Life is suffering.”
For the majority of our species born just 100 years ago or so — or even more recently — the initial challenge was simply to stay alive. If they dodged an infant death, managed to find some sort of income or whatever was needed to get sufficient food and shelter, the next goal was to reproduce. After that, exiting stage left was usually the least-worst option.
In such a scenario, it was all purely about survival.
These days, for those of us lucky enough to beat the exceptionally long odds of actually being born, the chances of us then living to an age of 60 plus are very high, as the statistically astute Pinker is well aware.
Therefore, basic life and death issues don’t tend to constantly come into play.
“In the secular world, finding meaning becomes our ‘cross to bear’.”
For many, these are replaced by questions of “What’s it all about?” and the like. Deeper concerns about meaning, or what some might term spirituality, are what fill this space.
Added to this is the fact that we’re now ‘smarter’. Not only have global literacy levels increased but so to have our IQs, as highlighted by Pinker.
Thus, it can be argued, in our search for more concrete truths about existence as a greater number of us leave behind old ‘comforting’ beliefs in this secular liberal democratic world that both Pinker and I espouse to, the meaning of life becomes our ‘cross to bear’ so to put it. We’re here, going through the motions, ‘working for the system’ or what have you, for what?
You would be right in thinking that I’m writing this from the point of view of a single, childless man who isn’t exactly ‘loving’ his principal job right now. I’m not alone. And it would appear we’re on the rise, thanks in no small part to a lack of wars to check our numbers.
It’s not just men who are at risk from this, although we are more likely to end things prematurely compared to women. Listening to Pinker in relation to technological advancements and artificial intelligence, I couldn’t help but think of an episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets a new well-paid job and moves with the family to an ultra-modern house, replete with all sorts of gadgets to do the housework. With very little to do, wife Marge takes to the wine. There’s always alcohol to fill the void, isn’t there?
Believe in better
Of course, this isn’t to say that technology and the accompanied ‘softer living’ are killing us, um, softly (although, in some spheres, this might very well be the case). That same human ingenuity that has made our lives easier can also come good to ensure we remain strong and feel fulfilled.
That being said, that our lives in this world have never been better could be put into the ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ category. One way to view it is like a football team that has had the lion’s share of possession, the most shots on target, the most corners, etc. and goes on to win the game as expected. However, for the players, it seems like a defeat. It should have been much better. They think more about what they did poorly rather than what they did well.
That’s human nature really. It’s what keeps us striving for better and it is where we can find ‘meaning’. This is where Pinker and I are in agreement, the ability of mankind (can I use that word in these politically correct days?), collectively, to keep on improving. The problem is that some don’t feel part of the game at all. Or at least they feel like they only have a very minor, insignificant part in it.
So yes, the world has never been better for the masses when we crunch all the numbers. Yet, we can’t experience the lives of those in the past to appreciate just how good we have it now. Also, the stats usually count for very little. Pinker can publish all the graphs he wants to show how such a ‘wonderful world’ it currently is. It’s how we perceive things to be going, though, this is what generally matters most.
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