Look on the bright side, cynics: There’s reason for optimism

By Adrianne Glenn / For The Pitt News

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At some point in the last week, you probably heard something like “What has the world come to?” 

There is disapproving commentary about everything from the value placed on social media, movements to legalize marijuana and the promotion of marriage equality.

Commentary like this reflects ignorance about the actual state of the world, which is improving and makes it seem as if optimism is delusional.

But optimism on some aspects of culture — health, education and economic standings — is supported more now than ever. 

For starters, while health problems still exist and contribute to global suffering, the recent Ebola outbreak may be clouding perceptions of actual health and medical progress.

Cancer mortality rates have dropped by more than 20 percent within the last 25 years, malaria mortality rates are down 42 percent within the last 10 years and there has been an overall lifespan increase across the globe.

Additionally, child mortality rates are down worldwide. In the last eight years alone, they have dropped from 46 deaths per 1,000 births to 35 deaths per 1,000 births.

Advances in the medical field not only contribute toward the minimization of individual suffering, but also represent the ways in which humanity is able to solve problems it faces. 

Along with progress in health across the world, education is becoming more accessible worldwide. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, the gross percentage of enrollment in primary schooling worldwide has risen from less than 104 percent to more than 108 percent in just eight years. Additionally, the number of women around the world who were not enrolled in school dropped from 43,361,424 in 2004 to 30,040,024 in 2011. This means that more individuals, especially women, are becoming educated and empowered. Generally speaking, the more education one has, the more prepared one is to live a healthy and responsible life. 

Additionally, this global accessibility to education has an undeniable effect on global literacy. According to UNESCO, the worldwide literacy rate for women between the ages of 20 and 30 has risen from 79 percent to 87 percent in the past 25 years.

Education not only leads to a more fulfilling life for each individual, but also paves the way for a more competent society by expanding collective knowledge and discovery. Because of skills learned through it, education leads to participation in the workforce, which ultimately leads both to better individual financial stability and a better national income. 

While better health and education will increase the probability of people living longer and being more productive, the idea that society is on the decline persists. A simple Twitter search of the phrase “society going downhill” proves that much. These tweets represent some of the many ideas still out there about our society’s regression. This is a major problem, since evidence points to the contrary. 

It is possible that negative social feeling remains prevalent because of the mainstream media’s tendency to cover primarily negative events. But in smaller circles, there are thousands of people helping old folks cross streets and saving cats from trees. None of that is nearly as exciting as reporting assaults or drug busts, so only the negative stories typically get coverage. Now, there is no question that the latter should be covered. Negative news still is news. But more press should also be given to the positives that manifest themselves in everyday life.

Because of modern globalization, cultural interconnection also allows us to be notified at any time a negative event takes place in any part of the world.

While these negative events are rare, in actuality, it can seem like they happen every second because of the massive size of the planet and our ability to hear from all parts of it, particularly through social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Through these mediums, information can flow from one part of the globe to another in seconds, not minutes. 

Regardless of how easy it is to see past the ways in which the world is improving, we need to work to acknowledge the achievements surrounding us.

When pessimism clouds our worldview, it doesn’t motivate us to fix problems. It triggers apathy, rather than enthusiasm, toward the idea of coming together and fixing our problems. Imagining the world unrealistically never does anyone any favors. Paying attention to positive progress, instead of only to negatives, not only creates better individual lives but also better collective progress.

Write to Adrianne Glenn at adg79@pitt.edu

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