If life is better than ever before, why does the world seem so depressing?
Have we just lived through one of the best years in human history? As we look at 2023 through the rearview mirror, I think that’s a defensible claim. In fact, the same thing could have been said at the end of pretty much every year since the beginning of the millennium (with the exception of the disastrous pandemic years of 2020 and 2021). Never before have so many people lived in affluence, safety, and good health.
And yet, it doesn’t feel that way. There’s so much horror and misery in the world—look at the situations in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, and Yemen alone—that it is hard to believe that, on average, this past year was probably the best year ever. So, if life is better than ever before, why does the world seem so depressing?
One culprit is the media. Every good editor knows that “if it bleeds, it leads.” If the newspapers only focus on awful things and ignore all the good stuff, is it any wonder that people end up believing that the world is going down the drain?
Still, it’s not as if there has ever been a secret boardroom meeting in which the editors-in-chief of all the newspapers and TV stations agreed on a sinister scheme to make us all feel gloomier. And some journalists are making efforts to balance out horrible news with more hopeful stories. Yet, negativity seems hard to avoid, and the few media platforms that focus on good news have not been successes. Most people prefer mainstream news outlets, which dutifully report everything that is going wrong in the world—especially if it can be blamed on the other side of the political aisle.
But there are more fundamental reasons why almost all news outlets display a negativity bias. To understand why news is almost invariably depressing—and why Rolf Dobelli is right that you probably shouldn’t read it—I’ve drawn up a list of Seven Laws of Pessimism. Some of the underlying principles will be familiar to anyone who has read the work of progress thinkers like Steven Pinker, Hans Rosling, Hannah Ritchie, and Johan Norberg, while others are more obscure. Hopefully, this list will work as an antidote whenever excessive news consumption makes you feel despondent.