In his new book, Upside: Surprising Good New About the State of our World, sociologist and author Brad Wright argues that despite what we hear from the media and other doom-sayers about the terrible state of the world, things are actually getting better. In this Q&A, Wright answers questions about his research and findings in Upside. Visit the Patheos Book Club for more on this new book here.
1. Are Americans pessimistic?
Yes and no. A curious pattern emerges in the data that Americans are optimistic about their own personal lives, thinking that things will get better and better for them personally. But when it comes to our country and our world, we're rather pessimistic—even when things are objectively getting better.
2. Are Americans nostalgic about the past?
When we compare the present to the past, we tend to idealize the past, forgetting the bad things that happened, so the present suffers by comparison. For example, some people view the 1950s as a great time for America, but this view can overlook the difficulties of that time such as racial segregation, high levels of poverty, the Korean War, an arms race with the Soviet Union, bomb shelter drills, and the polio epidemic. As comedian Jackie Gleason put it: "The past remembers better than it lived."
3. Does the media contribute to our pessimism?
The media sells negative worldviews. The media is a business, and it succeeds by attracting viewers and readers, sometimes by highlighting fearful, scary, and dangerous happenings in the world. When something goes bad, it's front page news—when it gets better, it's not. As a result, even when things are going well we hear predominately bad news.
4. Do Christians have additional reasons to be pessimistic?
Yes, for two reasons. Christian teachers and leaders often portray the Gospel as a solution, and to motivate the need for it they will often highlight the problems in society. Also, Christian beliefs about the end-times often associate them with severe worldwide problems, such economic collapse, social upheaval, and environmental disaster. This might make Christians more likely to believe that the world is headed downhill.
5. What's happening with our income levels?
Compared to 50 years ago, Americans now average much higher levels of income, and a smaller percentage of Americans live in poverty. Also, due to more efficient manufacturing and distribution, most things cost less now than they used to (in real dollars). Unfortunately, income inequality has also risen, so the income levels for the wealthy have increased much more than for the poor. Also, Americans save less now and have more personal debt.
6. Does money actually buy happiness?
A recent study by a Nobel-prize winning economist took a look at this question. It found that Americans are happier as they earn more money but only up to point, at about $70,000 a year. Below that, having more money means safer, healthier lives. Beyond that, though, it's just more stuff, so we might be happier just giving it away.
7. Are Americans better educated?
As much hype as we hear about America's failing school systems, American education levels are at an all-time high. The great majority of Americans have a high school education and a sizable minority has college degrees. It wasn't always been this way.
8. Are Americans healthier?
In just about every way, Americans are getting healthier and healthier. Compared to past times, we are living longer, our babies die less often, we get fewer infectious diseases, we're more likely to survive cancer, and we're even smoking fewer cigarettes. Worldwide, life expectancy is up and hunger is down. One of the few worsening health problems is obesity: Americans are getting bigger and bigger such that now almost three-fourths of Americans are overweight or obese.
9. What is happening with our families?
Unlike health, family relations and marriages have gotten worse. Compared to fifty years ago, we have many more people who are living together before marriage or are divorced. Premarital sex is more common as is children growing up with only one parent in the house. The dark clouds do have a silver lining, however, for in the last ten or twenty years, premarital sex rates have stopped increasing and divorce rates are actually decreasing slightly.
10. Don't we have more crime now?
Even though crime makes front-page news every day, crime rates have steadily dropped since the early 1990s. For example, both homicide rates and burglary rates are as low now as they were in the late 1960s. Certainly the country is much safer than it was in the 1970s—1990s.