We are better off in almost every way than at any time in history. Yet to read the headlines -- even to talk to your friends -- you'd think the world is coming to an end.
Jeremy Kisner, an investment adviser with Surevest Wealth Management of Phoenix, AZ, recently addressed this phenomenon, and, I think, put the world in better perspective. I am summarizing (another word for stealing . . . but with his permission) his thunder here, but for more wisdom direct from him, you can go to jeremykisner.com.
Kisner reminds us that the world has improved dramatically over almost any time frame you can consider. But it doesn't always feel this way because negative headlines attract eyeballs and sell advertising. Granted, there are tons of very real problems. Nevertheless, Bill Gates nailed it when he said, "Headlines are what mislead you, because bad news is a headline and gradual improvement is not."
Human progress occurs because every day a few billion people go to work and figure out ways to improve living standards. Individuals do not always recognize the gradual improvements. But one place you can see the progress is in the stock market which has been going up for most of our lives (with, granted, a few bumps in the road) and is near all-time highs.
People get scared reading the news -- North Korea, Iran, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, refugees, economic disparities, global warming -- and then they get even more scared thinking about the things that might go wrong. But meanwhile, people buy more things, companies grow, wealth is created, and billions of people live longer and better lives.
Here are a few of Kisner's examples of human progress,:
Life expectancy: Consider this: If you were born in 1900, you would have had a 23% chance of dying before age 20 and a 38% chance of dying before age 45. Kids born today have about a 1% chance of dying before age 20 and a 4% chance of dying before age 45.
Modern Conveniences: When our grandparents were born, virtually no one had electricity ... or telephone or indoor plumbing. They didn't have a car and couldn't fly in an airplane. Today, 85% of the people in the world enjoy the benefits of electricity. And two-thirds have a cellphone.
Poverty: Twenty years ago 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Today it's only 9% . . . and the rate is still falling.
Crime: Violent crime has been on a downward trend in the U. S. since 1990. Almost 14.5 million crimes were reported in the United States in 1990. By 2016 that figure was under 9.5 million.
Retirement: Some 90% of 65-year-old American men who were still alive in 1870 were working. Today only about 20% of 65-year-old American men are still working ... and many of them are working by choice not necessity.
Housework: The average family spent 11.5 hours a week doing laundry in 1920. That has fallen to 1.5 hours a week as of 2014.
Safety: Americans became 95% less likely to be killed on the job over the last hundred years. Seat belts, air bags and other safety features have brought down auto fatalities from 50,000 a year in the 1970s to about 37,000 today, despite more cars on the road. The auto fatality rate per 100,000 people has dropped from 25 to 11 -- less than half what it was in the 1970s.
Disease: In the past century, vaccines and antibiotics have brought miracles for modern medicine. Just since 1990, the control of infectious disease has saved the lives of an estimated 100 million children.
Food. Between 1961 and 2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12%, but the amount of food grown has increased by 300%.
Kisner maintains that people who think the best days for America, and for our economy, are behind us are essentially saying that human innovation is going to slow down or stagnate. He says that doesn't seem likely, at least over the next 20 to 30 years. Don't you agree?
But that begs the question: With all this good fortune, why is everyone so disconsolate?
We live in a society with the freedom to make our own decisions -- and our fundamental belief is that freedom to choose makes people happy. The more affluent we become, the more choices we have and, in theory, the happier we should be. The problem is that the average American in less satisfied with their lives, and clinical depression has exploded in the past 30 years, while our economy and standard of living has grown.
Why? Kisner points us to the paradox of plenty. Now, there's no question, there are some benefits to more freedom of choice. But there are negative effects as well.
Paralysis. The more options we have, the more difficult it is to choose, and we end up procrastinating, or just freezing up. For example, an analysis of over 600 corporate retirement plans showed that the more mutual fund choices a company offered in its 401k, the fewer people participated in the plan. This is because the task of selecting the right funds became overwhelming. There's more choice, but people actually end up poorer.
Second guessing. The more options we have, the less likely we are to end up satisfied with our choice. For example, assume there are three salad dressings. You know you don't like bleu cheese or honey mustard, so you pick Italian, and you're happy. What if there are 24 salad dressings? You are likely to be filled with doubt that you picked the best one, regardless of which one you pick.
Escalation of expectations. With all our options, we expect to find the "perfect" choice. When our choice is less than perfect, we are less satisfied. And then, instead of blaming someone else for the shortfall -- the producer, the provider, whoever -- we blame ourselves, because we somehow failed to make the right choice.
For more on this paradox, you can go to a TED Talk by Barry Schwartz, who explains the theory further. But the bottom line is this: Material affluence enables more choice, but it frequently makes people less happy.
This doesn't mean we should all take a vow of poverty. It means that we will all be better off if we keep the following in mind: Most of us are better off than we think. But less can be more. Don't be paralyzed by the pressure to make perfect decisions. Don't blame yourself when the solution you choose is not perfect. Don't feel bad if there's some "new thing" that you either don't want or can't afford. And share more with other people.
As with most things in life, good can be good enough, and acceptance of that can lead to greater life satisfaction. And . . . don't pay too much attention to those negative headlines.