As I started reading Steven Pinker’s new bestseller, Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism And Progress, I must admit I was curious to learn why Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, called it the greatest book he’s ever read.
And after making it through only a few pages of the preface, I thought I had my answer. Harvard psychology professor, Pinker packs more information into his sentences than any mere mortal could ever accomplish. Filled with astonishing erudition, brilliant references, and stunning conclusions, this is a book written by a genius for geniuses! The thought even crossed my mind that only a Mensa member could fully benefit from this book. “No wonder Gates loves this!”
But as I kept reading through its nearly 500 pages, I soon realized my initial assessment was entirely wrong. Gates didn’t herald this book for its style. He lauded it for it’s research – and for Pinker’s perfect timing in urging readers to start embracing optimism instead of the negativity that pervades so much of today’s discourse and thinking.
“Ordinary people think the world is going to hell in a hand basket,” Pinker writes, “and a solid majority of us believe our country is headed in the wrong direction.” And it’s easy to see why people feel this way. “Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse and oppression. We never see a journalist report live from a country to say ‘war has not broken out here.’”
In response, Pinker fills his book with chapter upon chapter of evidence that proves human life is only getting progressively better. We have fewer wars, less violence, more freedoms – and life expectancy has increased by 10 years in just the past half century. In areas of health, wealth, equality, the environment and overall wellbeing, all of it is ascending.
Consider these compelling examples of how life is actually improving:
* Two hundred years ago, no country in the world had a life expectancy above 40. By 1950, it had only grown to 60. In 2015, it reached 71.4 years.
* People today live far more years in good health than their ancestors lived altogether, healthy and infirm years combined.
* The developing world is feeding itself. Famine deaths are on a steep and steady decline. India’s billion people average 2,400 calories per day. In Africa, it’s 2,600.
* Noting that the richest 1% of society surely has grown even richer since the country emerged from the Great Recession (leading to indisputably greater inequality), the majority of the human race has also grown richer.
* Between 1979-2014, the percentage of poor Americans dropped from 24% to 20%. The percentage of people in the lower middle class dropped from 24% to 17%. And the middle class shrank from 32% of the population to 30%. Perhaps most remarkably, the upper class (annual income of $100,000 to $350,000) grew from 13% to 30%. “The world has become less equal,” says Pinker, “but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.”
* The overall rate of species extinction has been reduced by 75%. No longer on the endangered animals list include condors, tigers, manatees and pandas. And thanks to the cooperation of 197 countries, and their shared ban on fluorocarbons, the ozone layer is expected to heal by the middle of the 21st Century.
* The Pew Research Center has probed American opinions for decades, and now reports that there’s been a “fundamental shift” toward tolerance, respect of rights “with formerly widespread prejudices sinking into oblivion.”
* Americans today spend as much time with relatives, have the same number of friends and see them as often, and report as much emotional support as did their counterparts in the 1970’s – the decade of “Happy Days.”
* And the single fact that seemed to most impress, Bill Gates: Time spent doing laundry fell from 11.5 hours per week in 1930, to an hour and a half in 2014.
If Pinker has but one central thesis, it’s that we’ve managed to take all of these incredible economic and social improvements in stride. Moreover, we’ve deftly found so many new concerns to be upset about that we now live in a perpetual “things never get better” mindset. Not only have we become especially pessimistic as a society, Pinker writes, “none of us is as happy as we ought to be given how amazing our world has become.”
Beating Back The Human Proclivity For Negativity
As an outcome of writing his book, Pinker clearly wants to shake us to our senses. He believes humans have adopted a wildly cynical view of life, and even worries that we’ve come to enjoy marinating in negativity: “Experiments have shown that a critic who pans a book is perceived to be more competent than a critic who praises it, and the same may be true of all critics in society.”
Just in the last few weeks, a study performed at MIT elevates Pinker’s concerns:
Researcher Soroush Vosoughi and his colleagues examined every tweet sent from 2006-2017, and used fact-checkers to label each one as either true or false. What they discovered is that false information was re-tweeted by more people than true facts, and true stories took six times longer to reach 1,500 people.
In assessing the outcome, Vosoughi suggests untrue stories tend to inspire emotions like fear, anger and surprise whereas genuine ones elicit feelings of joy and trust. The implication is we clearly prefer sharing stories that stir strong negative reactions over ones that uplift and inspire.
In Pinker’s view, we couldn’t be living in a better time in history even if the day-to-day news appears bleak. So he urges us to put our trust “in the trend lines and not the headlines.”
To be enlightened today, therefore, we must focus on abundance and not lack. We must look for all the possibilities rather than all the limitations. And we must no longer allow the thorns of life to deprive us from seeing the underlying beauty in every rose.
To be an optimist today is to be a realist.