Life is great . . . Why is everyone so miserable?

LaVarr WebbBy any objective measure, there’s never been a better time to be alive than now – in the entire history of the world.

Then why is there so much angst, depression, addiction and unhappiness?

Consider: There is less poverty across the world than ever before. There is no reason for anyone in Utah or the United States to go hungry. Obesity is a far greater problem than hunger, even among poor people. The safety net is good and getting better. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in developing countries in the last few decades.

We enjoy great health; 70 is the new 50. A number of major diseases have been eradicated. Advances in medicine are remarkable.  

Crime is way down and we are safer than ever. We are less likely to be victims of crime, less likely to be hurt or killed in an auto accident, less likely to suffer an accident on the job. Automobiles, airplanes, toys, food and machinery are all safer than ever.

Women have vastly more opportunities, more education, better jobs, higher incomes, less sexual harassment.

Ditto for minority groups and the LGBT communities. Equality has vastly improved. There is less discrimination today than ever before. More opportunity. Less racism and bigotry. People with disabilities are also treated much better and have greater opportunities.

Women are driving labor force participation. Unemployment rates are way down, and at historically low levels for African Americans and Hispanics. Wages are rising for everyone.

Today there is less war, less violence, fewer instances of genocide worldwide. It has been many decades since major countries engaged in all-out war, with millions of people being killed.

Our air is cleaner. Our water is purer. Our environment is better protected.

With amazing advances in technology, life has never been more convenient. 

Certainly, even with all that good news, bad things happen. Tragedies and disappointments occur, and life is not always great for any of us at different times in our lives.

But, overall, should we not as individuals, families, communities and across the country, be happier than ever?

Apparently not. We see article after article in the news media and on social media about how tough and unfair life is, how society is fragmented, how society’s problems go unsolved, how there is more depression and addiction. 

Columnist George Will recently wrote about our “epidemic of loneliness.” Sen. Ben Sasse wrote a book saying that Americans “are richer, more informed and ‘connected’ than ever – and unhappier, more isolated and less fulfilled.” Sasse calls loneliness the nation’s “number one health crisis.”

While health care has improved dramatically, the average U.S. life span has actually declined in the last few years thanks almost entirely to suicide and drug overdoses, which Sasse calls “diseases of despair.” The Washington Post reports that diagnoses of depression are at an all-time high.

So what’s the problem?

It’s impossible to pinpoint a particular reason, and harder to find a simple solution. I certainly don’t have all the answers. And I would never question the reality of depression and anxiety. Mental illness is real and very difficult to treat. Asking someone with clinical depression to just cheer up and think positive thoughts is like asking someone with a fractured arm to go pitch nine innings.

It does appear that more people than in the past are feeling anxious about life, lacking self-worth, and feeling undervalued. Many experts point to a lack of meaningful relationships for much of the angst that exists. I’m sure that’s part of it.

Here’s another thing I believe contributes to anxiety:

24/7 connections to the entire world and all of its bad news are enough to depress anyone. The news media naturally focus on the negative, the sensational and the horrific. Throughout history, terrible things have always happened at any given moment somewhere in the world. But thanks to the capabilities of modern communications, every single gruesome event, large or small, anywhere on the globe, is delivered almost instantaneously to your phone, tablet, TV or radio.

In my younger years when we had three TV stations, a handful of radio stations and a few newspapers reporting the news, we didn’t get nearly as much bad news. We didn’t hear about many of the bad things happening worldwide, and we seldom saw immediate video.

While it’s good to know what’s happening locally, nationally and internationally, the constant barrage of terrible news makes it seem like the world is falling apart. In reality, far fewer bad things are happening, but the good news doesn’t get the same prominence. Constantly watching cable TV, checking your Twitter and Facebook feeds, watching YouTube videos, and listening to 24/7 radio news skews one’s outlook on life in a decidedly negative way. There are a lot more good things than bad things, but we are inundated by the negative.

So, don’t watch or read the news obsessively. Every day I get political news summaries from the New York Times, Washington Post, and others. If I just read that stuff and from it deduced how the state, nation and world are doing, I’d go kill myself. It’s non-stop, negative, sky-is-falling news 24/7. It’s so negative it’s disgusting.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, recently wrote a column noting how the world has improved dramatically by almost any measure. He said 2018 was the best year in human history.

But then he admitted that journalists don’t write about life being good. He writes one column a year about human progress, but spends the rest of the year writing about “atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar, starvation in Yemen, climate change in Bangladesh, refugees and child marriage at home, and some of the world’s worst poverty in Central African Republic.”

He said, “journalism is supposed to inform people about the world, and it turns out that most Americans (and citizens of other countries, too) are spectacularly misinformed. I suspect that this misperception reflects in part how we in journalism cover news. We cover wars, massacres and famines, but are less focused on progress.”

So don’t pay attention to all the garbage on social media and the Internet. Social media can be putrid and sterile. We post a lot of our Utah Policy stories to Facebook, which allows anyone to comment on them. I, unfortunately, get the comments in my email inbox. I very much enjoy good political commentary, even if I disagree with the writer. If it is insightful, well-written, reasonably fair, cogent, sometimes humorous or witty, I’m all for it.

But If I spend a half hour reading through the garbage Facebook comments on our articles I’m mad at myself for wasting time. Most comments are short, nasty and stupid. Many can’t spell or use grammar properly. Very few ever say anything interesting or insightful. They add nothing to intelligent discourse, and if you read much of that stuff you get a skewed view of the world.

Here’s my advice: Instead of wasting time with social media or reading depressing news articles, spend time outdoors, in nature, or exercising or reading classics. Go on a hike. Learn to identify birds and wild animals. Take on a hobby like woodworking or other crafts that require hands and brain to work together. Make something that you can feel and see. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment. Spend time with animals. Take on a physical project and get it done. Have an intelligent conversation with someone you respect.

Remember that the world today is in far better shape than ever before. Despite dysfunction in politics, problems are being solved, life is getting better, and optimism and happiness should prevail over the misery.