2016 Was the Best Year Ever
Ok so we just finished 2016 and a lot of you might be pretty happy to see it go. Some of you might even think it was the worst year ever. And if you watched the news, or looked at Facebook, or paid attention even a little bit, you’d be hard-pressed to come to any other conclusion.
But if we look at the numbers, a different image of 2016 begins to emerge. In fact, it’s safe to say 2016 was good for humanity overall, and 2017 will most likely be even better.
But why does it feel like 2016 was so bad?
A lot of bad things happened in 2016.
The year kicked off with the death of David Bowie and finished up with the death of Carrie Fisher. In between, we had the Zika virus, a very divisive US presidential election, the largest mass shooting in US history, and the war in Syria continued to be a heartbreaking tragedy.
There’s not enough time in this video to list all the bad things that happened in 2016.
Yet, the world last year wasn’t any worse than any time before.
In fact, the world is getting better by almost every measurable factor.
And not just in the sense that being alive today is better than living in the middle ages because we have running water and sanitation. No, on almost every scale the world has been getting better, and this trend has persisted for decades now.
Child mortality is down. Education is up. Global literacy is at its highest level in all of recorded history.
And since the 1950s worldwide poverty has decreased dramatically. In 1950, almost 3/4 of the world was estimated to be living in extreme poverty. That’s almost 2 billion people. Today it’s somewhere around 10%.
This is an astounding statistic because the world population has tripled since then. That means there were more people — in raw numbers — living in poverty in 1950 than there are today, despite the population increase.
But let’s look at another statistic.
Deaths due to war have fallen drastically since World War II — which shouldn’t be much of a surprise since World War II was the most destructive war in human history — but even if you compare the previous decades and centuries, it becomes clear that the global death rate due to conflict is at its lowest level in six centuries.
While there are still wars occurring, they are much less deadly and less frequent than in almost any other time in human history.
And even violent crime has been falling steadily for the past few decades all over the world. This is on average the safest time to be alive in human history. Even hunter gatherer groups experience more homicide than modern industrialized societies.
But you wouldn’t know it from reading the news.
It’s true that in the United States some cities have seen an increase in violent crime over the past couple of years but when looked at in the long term and combined with data from all over the country, violent crime is still at historic lows.
And that’s the real trick.
We have to look at the trends.
This is the mistake we make with global warming.
Climate change skeptics tend to focus on a few specific data points that seem to contradict the evidence for global warming and ignore the overall trend. Because a few unseasonably cold days are not going to reverse the evidence for global warming just as a few places where homicides are on the rise aren’t going to reverse the overall trend of decreasing homicide rates.
So even though you’ve read these statistics and looked over these graphs, there’s a good chance you still feel like the world is getting worse.
Don’t worry. That’s natural.
For one thing, we tend to idealize the past. We reminisce about the good times and tweak, distort, or even ignore the bad times. This is called nostalgia and we all do it. It makes us much more likely to remember the past in a better light and make the present seem downright apocalyptic by comparison.
But this is a deception. We are fooling ourselves.
We’re also wired to pay attention to the bad over the good in the present. Events that make an emotional impact — especially a negative emotional impact — tend to be focused on and retained. So when we see a news report about a terrible tragedy happening somewhere in the world, we are more likely to pay attention to it and remember it.
This is a survival strategy.
Back when we were living in caves, those who paid attention to predators or dangerous situations were more likely to guard against them and persevere. So we’re much more likely to pay attention to a negative, scary event than a mundane — even good — experience.
Media outlets are well aware of this. So they often lead with negative new stories to attract our attention.
Even though terrorism and plane crashes are rather rare events, they are what make good, eye-catching headlines. You’re more likely to be shot by an infant than a terrorist and drown in your bathtub over die in a plane crash, but babies and bathtubs don’t seem that dangerous.
This is called an availability heuristic.
A heuristic is basically a cognitive shortcut our mind uses to come to conclusions or make decisions. We use an availability heuristic when we estimate how likely an event is to occur by measuring how available the memory of such an event is in our recollection. Since we remember exciting or terrifying events more easily than more mundane ones, plane crashes and terrorism seem more common than they actually are. And we don’t worry about killer babies or treacherous bathtubs because most of our experiences with them are pretty unmemorable.
So this same heuristic makes the world seem to be full of horrible, depressing events. When in actuality it’s often just people trying to sell newspapers.
But there’s another factor here.
We live in a globalized, deeply-connected world now. Never before have we had access to so much information. The internet, the myriad of news channels, and the ease of communication all allow us to be much more aware of what is happening in the world. And because of the way our attention works — now that we have so much information at our fingertips — we tend to focus on and remember the terrible things.
Because before all this communication, it wasn’t like nothing bad ever happened — we just didn’t know about it.
2016 wasn’t a bad year.
In fact, it was mostly good. And by all measures, 2017 will be even better. But it’s ok to feel bad about it. Because 2016 was bad for a lot of people.
We should be concerned about the plight of those who are not living the average life projected by these graphs — whose prosperity has not gone by the numbers.
Because the numbers don’t matter if we aren’t actively working to realize them.
While it can be overwhelming to be bombarded by negative news stories everyday, we should never ignore them or make the mistake of idealizing the past. We can’t go back to living in a cave. Being ignorant of all the suffering that happens doesn’t make it disappear. And if we are more likely to notice negative events that means we’re more likely to do something to remedy them.
Because if we want these amazing, unprecedented trends to persevere, we can’t let our guard down. We have to keep paying attention.
Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVPL-p0jYHs