The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope.
We live in an interesting time in that, materially, things are arguably better than they have ever been before, yet, we all seem to be losing our minds thinking the world is one giant toilet bowl about to be flushed. An irrational sense of hopelessness is spreading across the rich, developed world. It’s a paradox of progress: the better things get, the more anxious and desperate we all seem to feel.1
In recent years, writers such as Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling have been making the case that we’re wrong to feel so pessimistic, that things are, in fact, the best they’ve ever been and likely going to get even better.2
Both men have filled long, heavy books with many charts and graphs that start at one corner and always seem somehow to end up in the opposite corner. Both men have explained, at length, the biases and incorrect assumptions we all carry that cause us to feel that things are much worse than they are.
Progress, they argue, has continued, uninterrupted, throughout modern history. People are more educated and literate than ever before.3 Violence has trended down for decades, possibly centuries.4 Racism, sexism, discrimination, and violence against women are at their lowest points in recorded history.5 We have more rights than ever before.6 Half the planet has access to the internet.7 Extreme poverty is at an all-time low worldwide.8 Wars are smaller and less frequent than at any other time in recorded history.9 Children are dying less, and people are living longer.10 There’s more wealth than ever before.11 We’ve, like, cured a bunch of diseases and stuff.12
And they’re right. It’s important to know these facts. But reading these books is also kind of like listening to your Uncle Larry prattle on about how much worse things were when he was your age. Even though he’s right, it doesn’t necessarily make you feel any better about your problems.
Because, for all the good news being published today, here are some other surprising statistics: in the United States, symptoms of depression and anxiety are on an eighty-year upswing among young people and a twenty-year upswing among the adult population.13 Not only are people experiencing depression in greater numbers, but they’re experiencing it at earlier ages, with each generation.14 Since 1985, men and women have reported lower levels of life satisfaction.15 Part of that is probably because stress levels have risen over the past thirty years.16 Drug overdoses have recently hit an all-time high as the opioid crisis has wrecked much of the United States and Canada.17 Across the U.S. population, feelings of loneliness and social isolation are up. Nearly half of all Americans now report feeling isolated, left out, or alone in their lives.18 Social trust is also not only down across the developed world but plummeting, meaning fewer people than ever trust their government, the media, or one another.19 In the 1980s, when researchers asked survey participants how many people they had discussed important personal matters with over the previous six months, the most common answer was “three.” By 2006, the most common answer was “zero.”20
Meanwhile, the environment is completely fucked. Nutjobs either have access to nuclear weapons, or are a hop, skip, and a jump away from getting them. Extremism across the world continues to grow—in all forms, on both the right and the left, both religious and secular. Conspiracy theorists, citizen militias, survivalists, and “preppers” (as in, prepping for Armageddon) are all becoming more popular subcultures, to the point where they are borderline mainstream.
Basically, we are the safest and most prosperous humans in the history of the world, yet we are feeling more hopeless than ever before. The better things get, the more we seem to despair. It’s the paradox of progress. And perhaps it can be summed up in one startling fact: the wealthier and safer the place you live, the more likely you are to commit suicide.21
The incredible progress made in health, safety, and material wealth over the past few hundred years is not to be denied. But these are statistics about the past, not the future. And that’s where hope inevitably must be found: in our visions of the future.
Because hope is not based on statistics. Hope doesn’t care about the downward trend of gun-related deaths or car accident fatalities. It doesn’t care that there wasn’t a commercial plane crash last year or that literacy hit an all-time high in Mongolia (well, unless you’re Mongolian).22
Hope doesn’t care about the problems that have already been solved. Hope cares only about the problems that still need to be solved. Because the better the world gets, the more we have to lose. And the more we have to lose, the less we feel we have to hope for.
To build and maintain hope, we need three things: a sense of control, a belief in the value of something, and a community.23 “Control” means we feel as though we’re in control of our own life, that we can affect our fate. “Values” means we find something important enough to work toward, something better, that’s worth striving for. And “community” means we are part of a group that values the same things we do and is working toward achieving those things. Without a community, we feel isolated, and our values cease to mean anything. Without values, nothing appears worth pursuing. And without control, we feel powerless to pursue anything. Lose any of the three, and you lose the other two. Lose any of the three, and you lose hope.
For us to understand why we’re suffering through such a crisis of hope today, we need to understand the mechanics of hope, how it is generated and maintained. The next three chapters will look at how we develop these three areas of our lives: our sense of control (Chapter 2), our values (Chapter 3), and our communities (Chapter 4).
We will then return to the original question: what is happening in our world that is causing us to feel worse despite everything consistently getting better?
And the answer might surprise you.
This is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope.
- Pessimism is widespread in the wealthy, developed world. When the public opinion data company YouGov surveyed people in seventeen countries in 2017 on whether they believed the world was getting better, worse, or staying the same, fewer than 10 percent of people in the richest countries believed it was getting better. In the United States, only 6 percent said it was getting better. In Australia and France, that figure was only 3 percent. The only major developed country surveyed where the majority believed the world was getting better was China. See Max Roser, “Good News: The World Is Getting Better. Bad News: You Were Wrong About How Things Have Changed,” August 15, 2018, World Economic Forum.↵
- The books I refer to are Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018), and Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018). I needle the authors a bit here, but these are two excellent and important books.↵
- Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Global Rise of Education,” Our World in Data, 2018.↵
- For an exhaustive treatment of the historical reduction in violence, Pinker’s book is indispensable. See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).↵
- Pinker, Enlightenment Now, pp. 214–32.↵
- Ibid., pp. 199–213.↵
- “Internet Users in the World by Regions“, June 30, 2018, InternetWorldStats.com.↵
- Diana Beltekian and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Extreme Poverty Is Falling: How Is Poverty Changing for Higher Poverty Lines?” March 5, 2018, OurWorldInData.org.↵
- Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, pp. 249–67.↵
- Pinker, Enlightenment Now, pp. 53–61.↵
- Ibid., pp. 79–96.↵
- Vaccinations are probably the single greatest advancement in the past one hundred years. One study found that the WHO’s global vaccination campaign in the 1980s likely prevented more than twenty million cases of dangerous diseases worldwide and saved $1.53 trillion in health care costs. The only diseases ever eradicated entirely were eradicated due to vaccines. This is part of why the anti-vaccination movement is so infuriating. See Walter A. Orenstein and Rafi Ahmed, “Simply Put: Vaccinations Save Lives,” PNAS 114, no. 16 (2017): 4031–33.↵
- G. L. Klerman and M. M. Weissman, “Increasing Rates of Depression,” Journal of the American Medical Association 261 (1989): 2229–35. See also J. M. Twenge, “Time Period and Birth Cohort Differences in Depressive Symptoms in the U.S., 1982–2013,” Social Indicators Research 121 (2015): 437–54.↵
- Myrna M. Weissman, PhD, Priya Wickramaratne, PhD, Steven Greenwald, MA, et al., “The Changing Rates of Major Depression,” JAMA Psychiatry 268, 21(1992): 3098–105.↵
- C. M. Herbst, “‘Paradoxical’ Decline? Another Look at the Relative Reduction in Female Happiness,” Journal of Economic Psychology 32 (2011): 773–88.↵
- S. Cohen and D. Janicki-Deverts, “Who’s Stressed? Distributions of Psychological Stress in the United States in Probability Samples from 1983, 2006, and 2009,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 42 (2012): 1320–34.↵
- For a harrowing and impassioned analysis of the opioid crisis ripping through North America, see Andrew Sullivan, “The Poison We Pick,” New York Magazine, February 2018.↵
- “New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America,” Cigna’s Loneliness Index, May 1, 2018.↵
- The Edelman Trust Index finds a continued decline in social trust across most of the developed world. See “The 2018 World Trust Barometer: World Report”.↵
- Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 3 (2006): 353–75.↵
- Wealthier countries, on average, have higher suicide rates than poorer countries. Data can be found from the World Health Organization, “Suicide Rates Data by Country”. Suicide is also more prevalent in wealthier neighborhoods. See Josh Sanburn, “Why Suicides Are More Common in Richer Neighborhoods,” Time, November 8, 2012.↵
- Each of these is true, by the way.↵
- My three-part definition of hope is a merging of theories on motivation, value, and meaning. As a result, I’ve kind of combined a few different academic models to suit my purposes.
The first is self-determination theory, which states that we require three things to feel motivated and satisfied in our lives: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. I’ve merged autonomy and competence under the umbrella of “self-control” and, for reasons that will become clear in chapter 4, restyled relatedness as “community” What’s missing in self-determination theory—or, rather, what is implied—is that there is something worth being motivated for, that there is something valuable in the world that exists and deserves to be pursued.
That’s where the third component of hope comes in: values. For a sense of value or purpose, I’ve pulled from Roy Baumeister’s model of “meaningfulness.” In this model, we need four things to feel that our life is meaningful: purpose, values, efficacy, and self-worth. Again, I’ve lumped “efficacy” under the “self-control” umbrella. The other three, I’ve put under the umbrella of “values,” things we believe to be worthwhile and important and that make us feel good about ourselves. Chapter 3 will dissect at length my understanding of values. To learn more about self-determination theory, see R. M. Ryan and E. L. Deci, “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-being,” American Psychologist 55 (2000): 68–78. For Baumeister’s model, see Roy Baumeister, Meanings of Life (New York: Guilford Press, 1991), pp. 29–56.↵