Why I’m Optimistic in 2023

Why I’m Optimistic in 2023

Finding Hope in a World Full of Challenges

Reflecting on the past year, it’s easy to feel discouraged. We are facing multiple ongoing crises in mental and physical health, the environment, economic inflation, political divisiveness, civil unrest, and war. Social injustice remains rampant. These concerns should not be dismissed, and I want to start by emphasizing that optimism in no way neglects their importance. Nor do encouraging statistics take away from the fact that every needless death is a tragedy.

However, it’s also important – for our own sanity – to consider the good news. I often describe to my clients how our brains are hard-wired to pay more attention to negative events or feelings than positive ones. This is a well-studied psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias. It can lead to rumination and even depression. We recall criticism better than praise. We remember negative events more strongly than positive ones, and think about bad things more frequently than good things. Counterintuitively, our brains do this for our own benefit. It is far more important for survival to know where the dangers are than to take time to appreciate the wonders of life!

We see this reflected in our news and social media: negative and alarming news grips our attention, and so it gets more airtime. We click more frequently on alarming headlines, so they get published more often. This amplifies the illusion that the world is threatening by default.

We cannot make effective change when trapped in a state of despair. To avoid such a toll, it is important to balance our negativity bias with mindful awareness of what’s going well. And it turns out there are many, many good things happening!

Discovering Optimism

One antidote to the prevailing doom-and-gloom narrative of our time can be found in Matt Ridley’s Book The Rational Optimist. He uses hard data and historical analysis to show that we have made incredible progress in recent centuries, and this trend of increased prosperity is likely to continue as we innovate and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

Another important book is the late brilliant physician Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He writes:

“Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is.

Uncontrolled, our appetite for the dramatic goes too far, prevents us from seeing the world as it is, and leads us terribly astray.

Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”

Such thinking is not new, either. Even back in 1830, British historian Thomas Macaulay posited:

“Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. … On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

So, what exactly is all this progress that thinkers like Ridley, Rosling, and Macauley are talking about? Here are some examples.

Good News for a Change

Poverty is declining.

Globally, the number of people living below the poverty line (defined as living on less than $2.15 USD a day, in 2017 dollars) fell from 2.01 billion people (37.8% of the population) in 1991 to 648 million people (8.44% of the population) in 2019. It is still too early to calculate precisely how the covid-19 pandemic affected this trend; preliminary estimates indicate it may have pushed 70 million people or about 9% of the population back into extreme poverty in 2020. Yet the overall trend continues as it has for past decades. In 2017 renowned economist Max Roser commented that “Newspapers could have had the headline ‘Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday’ every day in the last 25 years.” For more insights, see his excellent research website Our World in Data.

Population growth is stabilizing.

Although the global population is still growing, the rate of growth has been slowing down since 1968 in an accurately predicted manner. The population is expected to peak somewhere around 10.4 billion people in the year 2100, and then decline. With reduced poverty comes gains in education and health, and declines in child mortality, all of which are associated with lower birth rates.

The rapid decline in child mortality deserves its own emphasis: Hans Rosling once stated that “child survival is the new green.” According to his educational website Gapminder.org, “saving poor children is an important factor in ending both poverty and population growth. The death of children is not holding back population growth. It is one of the reasons poor people still have many children.” People have less children when they do not need to worry about whether or not those children will survive to adulthood.

Medical advancement continues at an astonishing pace.

Life expectancy is rising everywhere. People around the world are living longer and healthier lives, thanks in part to advances in medicine as well as increased access to nutrition and education. From vaccines that have eradicated deadly diseases like smallpox and polio to new treatments for chronic conditions, the progress in medicine is astounding.

For example, new medical technology allows us to identify cancer and other diseases earlier, leading to better treatment outcomes. Targeted therapies are becoming more widely available, less invasive, and more effective than traditional treatments like chemotherapy. Midstage trials are providing renewed hope for the development of vaccines against various cancers.

Genetics represent another marvel of medical advancement. Knowledge about the genetic basis of diseases helps improve diagnoses and treatments. Researchers are making significant progress in developing gene therapies that can cure sickle cell disease, HIV/AIDS, and other debilitating diseases. Genetic testing is now available for certain inherited conditions, like Huntington’s disease, which can help people make more informed decisions about their health and their future.

We are also making progress towards treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (remember the ice bucket challenge in 2015?) and Alzheimer’s disease. The development of robotics has transformed surgical procedures, resulting in faster recovery times and fewer complications. Telemedicine makes healthcare more accessible and convenient. Wearable tech like smartwatches and fitness trackers can monitor vital signs and alert patients and their physicians to potential health issues.

Mental health care is advancing too!

Technology is helping mental health treatment as well. Our clinic and many others offer secure telehealth appointments, so that remote clients can get the same treatment as everyone else. We utilize cutting-edge measurement-based care platforms such as Greenspace to monitor mental health outcomes and help clients gain insight into treatment progress. Apps like How We Feel and Calm help clients develop emotional intelligence and mindfulness skills in an easy, approachable way. Neurofeedback is another relatively recent technology that provides an excellent alternative (or complement) to traditional talk therapy.

There are many more examples of medical innovation, and it may take time for some of these gains to become sufficiently accessible. But every day we are making great steps towards a healthier world.

There’s still time for the environment.

There’s no denying the reality that ecological sustainability and preservation are serious concerns. It seems likely we will overshoot 2.5°C of global warming, leading to severe weather events, expansion of deserts, food insecurity, animal species extinction, and economic harm. However, we can take solace in the fact that many initiatives are working, and progress is being made.

Many countries have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions while increasing their GDP. The world is making great strides towards clean and sustainable energy. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro are becoming more accessible and affordable. Even though nuclear energy has suffered tragic accidents, it remains one of the safest and cleanest forms of energy when compared to death rates from air pollution created by fossil fuels. Fourth-generation nuclear reactors currently being developed will be even smaller, safer, and more efficient with far less nuclear waste produced.  Scientists are making important discoveries towards fusion power, which has the potential to radically transform the world’s energy usage.

Another real concern is deforestation, but let us remember the wise words of Mr. Rogers concerning catastrophes: look for the helpers. Organizations like Cool Earth, which I fundraised for in 2019 and continue to support, are doing excellent work in this field. And we have data to support progress: a 2018 study published in Nature (one of the top scientific journals) identified with confidence that global tree cover has increased 7.1% since 1982.

Less harm from natural disasters

Furthermore, improvements in infrastructure and emergency preparedness have significantly reduced annual deaths from natural disasters, which were 3.7 million in 1931 and only 13,008 in 2022. Although we cannot prevent events like earthquakes, we can prevent high losses of life. The numbers prove that our efforts are working.

Admittedly, the tasks ahead will not be easy. But there is strong evidence that human effort and adaptability will allow us to fight current environmental threats and build a more sustainable world.

The world is more peaceful than ever before.

Given the widespread destruction and devastation in the first half of the 20th century, it is notable that the world has not seen a major global conflict in the past 78 years. Even considering the recent Ukraine conflict, warfare today is less frequent, less lethal, and more localized. While nobody knows the future for certain, there are reasons to believe that this calm and stability will persist. The globalization of trade means that the citizens of other countries are worth more to a nation alive than dead. As quality of life improves, we have less reason to engage in the discomforts of violence and vengeance. Institutions such as the United Nations have been developed to foster diplomacy, and cooperation has become more productive than armed invasion.

Violent crime is trending downwards as well. And the number of terrorist attacks and deaths from terrorism around the globe has dropped markedly since the 1970s (contrary to the over-representation of terrorism in the media, it accounted for just 0.05% of global deaths in 2017).

Overall, a person born in the world today is far less likely to be a victim of violence than a person born at any prior time in human history. That’s a remarkable achievement!

Basic needs are becoming more affordable.

It may be hard to believe, but it’s true: basic needs such as food, water, healthcare, housing, and education are becoming more affordable around the world. We owe this development to government and non-profit initiatives to reduce basic costs to individuals and families, as well as advances in technology, transportation, agriculture, and the global economy (lower prices stemming from businesses competing on a global scale).

The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency, reported in 2022 that the price of mobile-broadband services has dropped to just 1.5% of gross national income per capita. Almost two-thirds of the world population has access to the internet. This number continues to rise, along with ownership of mobile phones. With more accessibility and affordability, the world is also becoming increasingly connected. I believe that will be a very important part of furthering communication and cooperation to solve global challenges.

What Now? “Learned Optimism.”

I hope these examples have conveyed that there are many reasons to see hope in all our futures. Our natural negativity bias can lead to a sense of learned helplessness. I firmly believe in countering it by cultivating learned optimism. We are better equipped to take on problems when we have an accurate, factual view of the world. The overwhelming evidence shows that the future is looking positive!

Here’s another piece of good news: the myth-driven stigma around accessing mental health care is disappearing rapidly.

In my clinical work, I often draw upon dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), which teaches skills to strengthen emotional resilience and build a life worth living. These skills include radical acceptance (seeing situations as they are and focussing on what you can control rather than what you cannot) and checking the facts (developing a more accurate and realistic understanding of a situation rather than relying solely on assumptions and emotions).

Therapy can be useful in overcoming negativity and developing a more positive outlook on life. This is not simply turning a blind eye to suffering. Instead, it is about developing the skills to face challenges with a helpful and more effective outlook.

If you’re struggling with negative thoughts or feelings of helplessness, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to face these challenges alone. Consider reaching out to our team of skilled clinicians to explore therapy options and start building a more helpful future.