Thursday, October 28, 2004

THE MYTH OF THE GOLDEN AGE

The Virtue of Happiness
By Dr. Joel Wade


Do you long for the good old days, when life was simpler, people were healthier, air was cleaner, people were more prosperous on one income than they are now on two, morality was stronger, the world was more civilized, our country was freer, and there was greater opportunity for the innovative mind?

If you are longing for these things as though they existed in a more idyllic past, you are mistaken. Every one of these qualities of life has not just improved, but has improved dramatically over the past 50 years. I recommend to you Gregg Easterbrook’s book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

Among his observations: Since about 1990, the crime rate in the US has been going down. Except for the level of greenhouse gasses, every environmental trend in the US and Europe has been positive, for decades. Average life expectancy in the US has grown from 41 years in 1900 (when there was a lot of infant mortality and women dying in childbirth), to around 77 year today; it is about 66 years in the entire world. Drug, alcohol, and cigarette use in the US has been declining. Divorce rates and the rate of children born outside of marriage in the US, though way up from the 1950’s, are actually now in a shallow decline. Teen sexual activity and teen pregnancy is down. IQ scores are up 20% from a century ago. The Cold War is won, freedom and democracy is spreading, and wealth is growing.

This is a small sample. I could fill a whole chapter of a book outlining these, as Easterbrook does. Why, then, is it so common to reflect back upon better days, simpler times, and clearer morals?

One simple reason, according to Harvard psychologist Peter Jencks: We were kids then.

Now, some of you may have had horrible childhoods, and so you may have a much different experience. But think of what your responsibilities are as an adult, how much time you spend thinking, worrying, arranging, and working. If you have kids, think of how much you do to care for them, to make sure they are getting good food, a good education, good experiences as they grow. Think of how much you take care of that they simply do not need to worry about.

Your parents, or other adults in your life, did that to some degree for you, too. And those days, however full and challenging and sometimes painful and overwhelming, were also free of many of the burdens that you carry now, as an adult.

That is why many people think back on earlier times as a sort of golden age, when things were so much simpler. They were much simpler since they were kids, but they were not simpler for the grown ups.

You may personally be in a better or worse place in your personal life right now. But with all of the problems and conflicts and worries and troubles that you may be facing today, the world around you is actually closer to a “golden age” today than it has ever been before.

Knowing that the world is getting better - much better - and not worse as the media and many politicians would have us believe, is an important context shift for many people. Easterbrook says he is on a crusade among his media friends to get them to begin reporting this, but he has not had any success so far. There is just too much investment in the idea that “bad news sells” for them to change their tune, even in the face of near miraculous improvement in nearly every element of life.

So if you’re waiting to see this on TV before you let go of a portion of worry and allow yourself to feel a fuller measure of gratitude for the direction the world is going, you’ll be waiting a long time. Turn off your TV, and begin to look at the real improvements multiplying all around you.

Start now. Read Easterbrook’s book. And try completing the following sentences about ten times each (with new endings each time): “If it turns out the world is getting better and not worse…”; “If I were 5% more aware of how things are improving in the world…”.

We are now living in an expanding, improving golden age of which our parents and grandparents would have been in awe. We all need to be in awe of the life we have to enjoy today.


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