Zane: Offering an oasis of optimism in a world of woe

07/29/2014 5:07 PM

07/29/2014 5:08 PM

Breakfast in ancient Greece, lunch in Renaissance Florence, dinner with Hitler (assassination for dessert) – people almost always look backward while playing the time machine game. This makes sense: The past is a sure thing while the future is uncharted.

When it comes to living, however, almost everybody agrees there’s no time like the present.

Whether we’re looking at food (meat consumption has more than doubled in the developing world during the last two decades), medicine (there were no safe antibiotics until the 1940s), life expectancy at birth (it more than doubled during the 20th century), the good news keeps coming.

Global poverty has been cut in half since 1990 while 2 billion more people have improved access to drinking water. Hundreds of millions of people, especially in China and India, have been lifted out of abject poverty during the last 20 years. And the number of electoral democracies has almost quadrupled since 1974, from just 35 nations to about 120. Although it is widely claimed that the 20th century was the most violent in human history, Harvard researcher Stephen Pinker has shown the rate of violent death has dropped steadily since the dawn of civilization – dropping nearly 50-fold between the Middle Ages and the 20th century.

In America, the standard of living has risen so markedly for just about everybody that even the poor have better lives than working-class people did 50 years ago. The blessings of air conditioning, cell phones, high-tech agriculture and, yes, even some government programs are almost incalculable.

In the long view of human history, a broad pattern is clear: Life keeps getting better and better for more and more people. This trend is speckled with fits and starts. Every year or even every decade is not necessarily better than the previous one. But century by century, the trend line is unambiguous.

And yet, the world is not filled with optimists. Doom and gloom are de rigueur, especially among the smart set. Newspapers and websites are filled with stories of suffering, corruption and violence – and it doesn’t take much work to find them. The message: If loose nukes, religious fanatics or despots don’t destroy us, climate change will. Bookstore shelves bend from the weight of novels lamenting the profound sadness of being and the emptiness of our era and of scholarly works casting the capitalist system that has made us rich and free as dehumanizing.

This is nothing new. In his sweeping book, “The Idea of Decline in Western History,” Arthur Herman observed that influential writers have long seen America and Europe as “greedily materialistic, spiritually bankrupt and devoid of humane values.” John Stuart Mill nailed this phenomenon in 1828 when he wrote, “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

As an unrepentant optimist, I often wonder: Why, against so much evidence to the contrary, do pessimists carry the day?

It’s true that in the very short term and the very long run, all will fade to black. Each of us will die, which is a pretty grim, and, in about 5 billion years, the sun will say goodnight and that will be that.

But that is only part of the answer; the backdrop that helps shape the mindset. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The Myth of Happiness,” offers a more immediate explanation. “It’s cruel, but true,” she writes. “We’re inclined – psychologically and physiologically – to take positive experiences for granted. We move into a beautiful loft. Marry a wonderful partner. Earn our way to the top of our profession. How thrilling! For a time.”

In our personal lives, it explains why the bloom soon comes off the rose (that’s still a rose) and why people don’t know how good they have it. In society, it explains why optimism seems dangerous. We fear it can make us fat and happy, distracted and complacent.

Ironically, optimism may be its own worst enemy because it diminishes one of the prime movers of progress: dissatisfaction. If we live in the best of all possible worlds, why change it? If, however, we live in a broken space, then let’s roll up our sleeves and make it better. (Legal scholar Cass Sunstein makes a related point when he notes research that people are far more likely to be motivated by the fear of loss than the hope of reward.)

Pessimism may be usefully inevitable. But as we lounge on sandy beaches this month and pop open a frosty Cheerwine, let’s take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to be alive today.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at

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