Why We're So Pessimistic: Read An Excerpt from Upside

This month in the Patheos Book Club, we're featuring the book Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World, by Bradley Wright. An excerpt of Chapter One follows.

Chapter 1

Pessimism About Our Nation and World

The trouble with this country is that there are too many people going about saying "the trouble with this country is. . . ."
-Sinclair Lewis

If its individual citizens, to a man, are to be believed, [America] always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise.
-Charles Dickens

In an airport bookshop recently, I paused at the current affairs section and looked down the shelves. . . . All [the books] argued to a greater or lesser extent that a) the world is a terrible place and b) it's getting worse. . . . I didn't see a single optimistic book.
-Matt Ridley, science writer

The majority of Americans think that most things in our country and around the world are on a downward spiral, but is such pessimism justified? Is the world really facing impending doom? This book examines data on wide-ranging topics all in service of answering whether things are actually getting better or worse. Think of it as a guided field trip through things that matter. As you read it, you'll find that contrary to popular opinion, life is improving in many ways (though certainly not all), and this improvement is nothing short of remarkable. But before we get into the actual state of the world, let's first look at what we think about the state of the world.

Last Thanksgiving I took my nine-year-old son, Floyd,1 to visit family in the Midwest. Since we were there on a Sunday, we went to a service at the local mega-church, which we had attended and enjoyed before. (They have dry-ice fog and rock guitar during worship-big pluses for both of us.) That Sunday, in the midst of his sermon, the pastor started describing the condition of the world. He began with a story from the local newspaper of an unwanted baby being thrown away in a trash can. He followed this with a story of a mass shooting of soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. From there he went on to worldwide famine and starvation before finishing with child sex-trafficking. With each malady that he described, he would hang his head and softly cry, "What has this world become?" After about a minute of this litany of suffering, I actually put my hand over Floyd's ears and just smiled at him while he gave me one of his frequent, "Dad, what in the world are you doing?" looks. I'm happy to talk with him about a lot of things, but child sex-trafficking and abandoned babies were not on the docket for that day.

I tell you this story not to criticize the pastor for being unduly negative. I realize that he was just trying to help the audience appreciate the need for the truths he was teaching. But his message illustrates what we routinely hear from so many different sources: that life is bad and getting worse. We know where we're going, and we'll arrive there in a hand basket.

Now, this story is just that-a story-and we can find anecdotal evidence to support just about any position, no matter how farfetched. So let's consider some systematically collected data to see how widespread our pessimism really is.

The Common Perception of Life Getting Worse

A 2009 nationwide poll asked Americans the following question: "I'd like you to compare the way things are going in the United States to the way they were going five years ago. Generally, would you say things are going better today, worse today, or about the same today as they were going five years ago?" Do you want to guess how many of the respondents thought things are getting worse? A full 83%! Only 5% thought that things were better. That's right: For every one American who thinks that things are getting better, sixteen think they are getting worse.

Another survey question makes the same point. Since 1971, surveys have asked Americans, "Do you feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction, or do you feel things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?" Now, I like to draw pictures of data, so I have summarized the results of these surveys in Figure 1.1. When this question was asked in 2010, 66% of respondents viewed the country as on the wrong track; only 34% thought we were headed in the right direction. This pessimism is rather typical, for as you can see in Figure 1.1, over most of the last forty years, a majority of Americans have viewed our country as on the wrong track in most years. In only nine years did more respondents say America was headed in the right direction. Overall, about two Americans think that we're on the wrong track for every one who thinks we're going in the right direction. Just a thought, but if we've been on the wrong track for forty years, shouldn't we have arrived in a really bad place already?

8/1/2011 4:00:00 AM
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