Is it just me, or are things getting worse?

Shootings. ISIS. Recessions. Political scandals. Don’t even get me started on the New England Patriots’ season. Is the whole world falling apart?

Really. Things seem to be getting worse every year. Every time I hear something about China, Russia, or Iran, I expect the start of WW3.

And it’s not just me. In a survey earlier this year, 71% of people said they felt the world was getting worse. Only 5% said they think things are improving overall. If everyone believes it, it must be true, right?

A trick of the mind?
This isn’t actually a new perspective. In fact, Americans in particular have felt this way pretty consistently since the 1950s. Social scientists even coined a term for it: “declinism.” Declinism is the widespread belief that the past was generally better than the present, and that the future is going to be worse than the present.

Ever since the Cold War began and duck and cover filled our classrooms, this pessimistic view has stuck. Any day now the stock market will crash for good. The violent hordes will storm our shores. The next world plague will turn the Walking Dead into a reality TV show.

But what is really happening?
Here’s the thing. Statistic after statistic shows that the world is considerably improving on a great many fronts. Consider a few facts:

Life expectancy — In the year 1900, it was 49 for Americans and only 24 for those living in India. Today, those numbers are above 79 and 66, respectively.

Child mortality — There are now less than 17,000 children dying each day from preventable diseases. That’s still a lot, but consider that less than a generation ago this was over 40,000 children daily.

Poverty — In the early 80s, over half of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. Now that number is down to 21%. Still too much, but that’s significant progress.

Disease — Huge advances are being made in treating curable diseases. Since just 2007, there has been a 78% reduction in people dying from the measles! And there has been a 50% decline in malaria deaths since 2009.

Violence — From 1973 to 2009, violent crimes in the U.S. dropped from 48 per 1,000 people to just 16.

War — In 1950, 235 out of every million people globally died in an armed conflict. Even though the number of smaller conflicts has risen since then, the actual number of people dying in armed conflict (as of 2007) is now only 2.5.

This doesn’t even mention all the amazing things happening right here in our community. After years of working with nonprofit leaders, I’ve seen so much positive change happen that it makes my head spin.

The 24 Hour Depression Cycle
Have you heard about any of these things on the news? Probably not. They’re mostly slow, long-term trends, without the sensationalism provided by a tragic accident or blustery political candidate. We all know that bad news sells. You rarely hear about the bad thing that didn’t happen.

But imagine replacing the discouragement of the daily news with encouragement. What if we replaced the anxiety that comes from hearing about tragedies with the inspiration that comes from seeing the good others have accomplished in the world.

Focus on the Good
I don’t want to belittle the serious challenges that face the world right now. The Syrian refugee crisis is an example of a real tragedy unfolding right before our eyes. But we can’t let the “doom and gloom” paint an unrealistic picture of what’s really going on around us.

So with that in mind, I propose the following 3 ways to fight our declinistic tendencies:

  1. Practice daily gratitude. Write down one thing every day that you’re thankful for. Send a thank you card if that thing is a person.
  2. Have a balanced media diet. It’s fine to watch the news, but make sure you also take in positive, inspirational stories, okay?
  3. Test fear with facts. If you sense anxiety about something you heard happened to someone else, look up the stats. Don’t give in to the fear du jour. How likely is it really that you’ll become a smurf?
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