Viewing the world as getting worse also bears personal costs. A Mayo Clinic report found that a pessimistic view of life can harm many areas of health and well-being. In particular, constant negative thinking can result in a shorter life-span, increased depression and distress, less resistance to the common cold, worse psychological and physical well-being, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and diminished coping skills during times of stress. Other studies have linked a negative outlook on life to mild cognitive impairment as well as Alzheimer's disease. This doesn't mean that we're all one Greenpeace report away from falling over dead, but rather that the barrage of negative news about the world cannot be good for us.

To be clear, my concerns are with unwarranted pessimism, not all pessimism. Pessimism, if accurate, can serve us well, and ignoring real problems has its own costs. Accurate perceptions of the world, both in the ways that it's getting better and worse, is the ideal.

The Plan of This Book

The goal of this book is not to comprehensively review every single issue facing Americans (that might take two books), but rather to focus on a limited set of issues that I believe are important to most people. Obviously, I judge what is important from my own particular social location. Hopefully most of the topics I cover will strike readers as significant, but some may not. Not only do I examine health, income, wars, and the environment-widely agreed-upon "big" issues-I also explore various less-agreed-upon issues. For example, some people define premarital sex as a social problem, while others think it's not a big deal. My own take on this issue, as well as others', is informed by my Christian faith, so if you do not share my values, as-gasp-some people don't, you might find some issues less compelling than I do.

There are, of course, many, many issues from which to choose, each with copious amounts of available data. Writing this book was like trying to fill a coffee mug from a fire hydrant-there is almost too much information. In fact, my biggest frustration in writing was figuring out how to prune major topics down to several pages of information. I had to drop a lot of elaboration and nuance about each topic in order to highlight its core findings and still leave room to explore other topics. Consider, for example, the annual Health Report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It contains over five hundred pages of detailed information about health trends in the United States. The index alone is eleven pages! In it you can learn about rates of triplets, dental visits, lower back pain, whooping cough, organ transplants, and hundreds of other health-related issues. Every one of these health issues is of importance, but I couldn't possibly cover all of them. When it comes to health, I examine only several of what I deem to be the most important issues, including longevity, major diseases, hunger, and substance abuse.

Evaluating the problems facing society at any given time is inherently subjective. It's natural for people to arbitrarily judge the current situation of an issue as either good or bad. For example, as of 2007, 24% of Americans smoke cigarettes. Is this number acceptable, too high, or too low? There is often no objective definition of problems; rather, they are open to subjective judgment, and two people can look at the same data and come to very different conclusions. One could say the cup is half full, and the other might say, "Hey, that's not my drink."