People often reminisce about the good old days. Everything was better back then. Life was quiet. People were nicer. The crime was virtually non-existent. People were happier. Life was just generally better. Or so we believe. Data show the exact opposite. Most things were much worse in the past, starting with education, healthcare, ease of living, and ending with lifespan. The only thing that was better was our age. We were younger, and therefore we see the past positively. Since the good old days, we’ve got older. We are not as healthy, don’t have as much energy, we are not as carefree. The world got better, and we got worse.
Good old days and technology
Our belief in a better past is also fueled by technology. We have the world’s events at our fingertips. In the good old days, we worried about what’s going to happen in our family or our village. Today we worry about what’s happening in the whole world. We know about every crisis, every disaster, every conflict. So we feel that the world is in flames. Yes, the number of natural disasters keeps growing as the weather gets more extreme, but we are also getting better at handling it.
Because of the overwhelming amount of negative information from all over the planet, we feel things are running out of control. We are stressed, and we lose hope. We forget to see all the things that are better. These are being taken for granted. We somehow think they were always there. We don’t see the progress. Because we are blind to progress, we believe that a revolution is needed to nudge things in the right direction. But there is progress—a ton of it.
Positive progress is not interesting to report. There might be a hundred good news for every negative one, but you will never hear about them. You need to go out and actively seek the positives. The chances are good that even for bad news, the trend might be positive. Things can be bad and better at the same time. Yes, children still die at birth, and yes, significantly fewer children die at birth than a hundred years ago. More bad news doesn’t mean there are more bad things happening in the world. It is that we have better ways how to recognize them and report them.
Millions of years of evolution work against us. In the past, our tendency to make quick conclusions about the world around us worked great and gave us a chance to survive. We lived in small communities, and things like gossip and dramatic stories helped us to learn. We learned who is trustworthy and who we should be wary of. We learned what not to do so we don’t invite misfortunes as our neighbors. We learned that fatty and sugary food is good as it gives us energy and helps us survive famine. Unfortunately, all these instincts now work against us. We eat easily accessible sugar as a matter of indulgence rather than survival, and we get obese. We listen to gossip and dramatic stories to be entertained and not educated. We are looking for someone to blame, and we find them in those with different opinions, so society gets more polarized. We do all these things because of our biology, but the context has changed. While in the past it was helping us, now it is hurting us.
The past was the worst
I live in the Czech Republic. I was just a child during the Velvet Revolution, a change of regime from communist socialism to a modern democracy. It is difficult for me to compare how things were during the forty years of communist reign, but if I would listen to the older generation, I would probably think that things were much better than today. But were they? Or was it that the older generation remembers fondly the days when they were young. Well, data speak for themselves.
Look at statistics and you can paint a different picture. For example, even as little as 20 years ago, the number of homicides was double what it is today. Who would have thought when watching the TV news?
Going more into the past, in 1870, infant mortality was 25%, while in 2019, it was 0.26%, which is a hundred times less. The average life expectancy skyrocketed over the last 100 years from 47.0 for men and 49.8 for women in 1920 to 76.3 for men and 82.1 for women today. We live on average 30 years longer than people a hundred years ago, and we have a hundred times bigger chance to survive the first months after we come to this world. Would you really want to go back to the good old days when life was simpler?
And what about everyone’s favorite debate about vaccination? The first vaccines saw the light in the late 18th century. Edward Jenner, the father of immunology, was an English physician and scientist who pioneered vaccines, including creating the smallpox vaccine. That was in 1798 when smallpox killed around 10% of the population, so sort of a big deal. Today, thanks to vaccination, this particular menace is almost gone. Smallpox vaccine dates to 1798, tetanus (1926), tuberculosis (1927), polio (1955), measles (1963), mumps (1967), rubella (1969), or hepatitis B (1989). So there is enough evidence to see how beneficial they are for humankind.
The Czech Republic is one of the countries where a number of vaccinations are compulsory: whooping cough (since 1958), polio (1960), haemophiles influenzae type B (2001), mumps (1987), measles (1969), tetanus (1956), rubella (1986), diphtheria (1946), hepatitis B (2001). As the data show, these illnesses are pretty much non-existent in the country as a result. After analyzing health statistics, M. Petras suggests that in the last 100 years, vaccination prevented the deaths of as many as 1 million people in the Czech Republic, a country of 10 million people. This compared to 140 thousand deaths of Czech citizens in WWI and 340 thousand in the Second World War is a staggering number. Would you want to live in a world without vaccination? You wouldn’t. In fact, without it you may not even be born.
Stop oversimplifying the world
We like to simplify the view of the world so we can navigate the complexities of reality. This leads us to prefer identifying a single cause of our problems and then finding a single solution. Simple. Unfortunately, life is usually not that simple. Very rarely, there is a single cause of a problem or a single magical solution to it. There is a difference between simple and simplistic. Don’t get trapped into a simplistic view of the world. A simplistic view of the world leads to extremes. It leads to a belief that something is always good or always bad. You are for something, and that means you must be against something else. There is no space for nuance and critical thinking.
As human beings, we have a remarkable ability to assign blame for our misfortunes to others. Instead of accepting that maybe our actions led to unfortunate outcomes, we find other people or the environment to blame. Unfortunately, when we do this, we are so focused on blaming that we stop learning. We don’t see the progress we are making as humankind.
We are so obsessed with punishing others that we are unable to realistically assess the situation, look at the data, and accept that it is only us who need to own our lives. We run for a simplistic assignment of blame and therefore ignore the more complex answers. Instead of learning from our unfortunate past, we let it happen again in the future.
The biggest “simplificator” is culture. One of the big misconceptions of today’s world is that cultures are unchangeable. We tend to refer to the Western and Eastern civilization, Christian or Islamic world. We believe that these are very different worlds, maybe even the opposites. Because we compare culture with other things in our lives, like technological progress that is changing rapidly, we feel culture is not changing at all. That is a false impression.
Cultures are changing all the time. We believe that cultural values are stable, and therefore if someone has different cultural values, they will never change. However, just look at your own country. Regardless of where you live, I’m sure that a couple generations ago, your grandparents’ and their grandparents’ values were very different from the values you have today. The way of life is changing even more rapidly. And the same applies to every single country in the world. If your country has changed, you can bet that the lives and values of people in other countries have changed too.
Stop dwelling on the great past, stop blaming others and stop oversimplifying complex topics. Use critical thinking, actively search for information from credible sources, listen to opinions different from yours, and focus on the future rather than on the past. Remember, the past was the worst.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe that the world is getting worse? Or do you think that things are getting better even though there is still a long way to go? Was the past the worse? What things were better in the past and what data do you have that support that?
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