No, things are not getting worse – they’re getting better

Hans Rosling
Factfulness author Hans Rosling

The world is getting better in most respects but surveys show most people think it's getting worse. This overly dramatic worldview can have consequences for our mental health, as I explained in last week's Southern Star.


A question: over the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has (a) almost doubled, (b) stayed the same, or (c) almost halved.


The correct answer is C – extreme poverty has halved. Steady progress has been made for some time. In 1966 half the world lived in extreme poverty, but that had fallen to 9% in 2017.


However, few people are aware of this progress, according to surveys carried out by the late physician and statistician Hans Rosling. In most countries, fewer than 10% answered correctly. The same pattern was evident in questions asked about vaccination rates, population growth, education levels for girls, and various others questions. The world is getting better, but almost everyone thinks it’s getting worse.


How is this related to mental health? Well, firstly, negative media coverage makes the world seem a worse place than it really is, and this has consequences. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker cites a literature review which found consumers of negative news are prone to “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others.” They also become fatalistic, adds Pinker; why vote or donate money when things keep getting worse anyway?


Secondly, cognitive biases mean we are naturally alert to negative information. To give an example I’ve used before, you notice when you’re cycling into the wind, but you forget about it when it’s at your back. Similarly, in our everyday lives, its easy to focus on what goes wrong and forget or take for granted all the little things that go right. People have an “over-dramatic worldview”, to quote from Factfulness, Hans Rosling’s new book. This worldview is “stressful and misleading” and “comes from the very way our brains work”. People like “gossip and dramatic stories, which used to be the only source of news and useful information”. We crave drama. This means people can be quick to judge, quick to condemn, quick to jump to conclusions – with negative implications for relationships and quality of life (continued below...) 



Thirdly, Rosling’s findings are testimony to the importance of developing critical thinking skills. It’s important to remember stories about gradual improvements will never dominate the news. Similarly, as Steven Pinker points out, we never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”. I often make these points when working with anxious children frightened by what they see as a dangerous world; learning these thinking skills helps ease anxiety and fosters a more appropriate sense of calm.


Fourthly, Rosling’s work helps us think in a less absolutist manner. In his book, he compares the world to a sick premature baby in an incubator. After a week, the baby is improving, but her health is still critical. Does it make sense to say the baby’s health is improving? Yes. Does it make sense to say it is bad? Yes. Saying “things are improving” doesn’t mean everything is fine; something can be ‘bad and better’. Similarly, for the sake of your emotional health, it’s crucial to avoid thinking in a black-and-white manner. Depression is linked to absolutist thinking (“why do things always go wrong?”), while anxiety is associated with overestimation of risk and underestimation of coping abilities. There are huge mental health benefits to be had by abandoning an over-dramatic mindset, and by instead training yourself to view things calmly and scientifically.



Importantly, Rosling denied his views were ‘optimistic’; rather, he wanted people to have ‘a clear and reasonable idea about how things are’. Similarly, good mental health is not about “positive” thinking – it’s about balanced, helpful thinking.


Rosling writes: ‘When you hear about something terrible, calm yourself by asking: if there had been a positive improvement, would I have heard about that? Even if there had been hundreds of larger improvements, would I have heard?’


He calls this ‘factfulness”, or ‘understanding as a source of mental peace’. Like regular exercise and a healthy diet, it should become part of people’s daily lives. ‘Start to practise it, and you will make better decisions, stay alert to real dangers and possibilities, and avoid being constantly stressed about the wrong things’.