The world is a lot better than we all think.

That’s the main message behind one of my favorite books of 2018, Factfulness. Throughout the book author Hans Rosling does a wonderful job explaining why it is we think the world is so bad and what we can do to counteract that thinking.

He defines Factfulness as “The stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.”

If only carrying opinions for which we have strong supporting facts leads to less stress, then why do so many people easily believe things with hardly any supporting evidence?

Author Hans Roling uses an optical illusion to affectively illustrate why this happens. You’ve probably seen a version of the two lines below….

…and so you already know they’re the same length. Even knowing this, your brain still sees the bottom line as smaller than the one above. Roling explains why this happens…

This is because illusions don’t happen in our eyes, they happen in our brains. They are systematic misinterpretations, unrelated to individual sight problems. Knowing that most people are deluded means you don’t need to be embarrassed. Instead you can be curious: how does the illusion work?

The rest of Factfulness deals with answering how the illusion works by pointing out all of the instincts we’ve inherited from our ancestors that were useful thousands of years ago, but just stress us out in the present day.

Getting over “a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency” is a Sisyphean task. Instead of aiming to eradicate our archaic instincts, we should get curious about them, as Rosling suggests. If we’re lucky, this will give us a paradigm shift in how we relate to the world and help us better understand its reality.

Factfulness breaks down 10 different instincts that cause us to misjudge our world as worse than it really is…

  1. The Gap Instinct
  2. The Negativity Instinct
  3. The Straight Line Instinct
  4. The Fear Instinct
  5. The Size Instinct
  6. The Generalization Instinct
  7. The Destiny Instinct
  8. The Single Perspective Instinct
  9. The Blame Instinct
  10. The Urgency Instinct

Rather than write in-depth about all of these, I’ll break down one of the instincts I found most insightful. Hopefully this will encourage you to read the book and learn about the other instincts as well.

The Negativity Instinct

The Negativity Instinct is the tendency to notice the bad things in life more than the good. The authors show this clearly in a 15-question test they’ve developed to see how factfully people interpret the world. Among other things, they ask…

  1. How many of the world’s one-year-old children have been vaccinated against some diseases?
    1. 20%
    2. 50%
    3. 80%
  2. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?
    1. 9 years
    2. 6 years
    3. 3 years
  3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
    1. Almost doubled
    2. Remained more or less the same
    3. Almost halved

The actual answers to the questions above are C, A, and C.

When answering these questions (without being prepped that they judge the world negatively), people tend to get them wrong at a higher rate than random chance would allow. Rosling points this out in dramatic fashion by likening our human responses to that of a chimpanzee.

The chimps’ errors would be equally shared between the two wrong answers, whereas the human errors all tend to be in one direction. Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless than it really is.

It’s time we realize that, regardless of what we see in the news, things are getting better. This doesn’t mean that some things can’t still be bad. We can recognize progress while accepting that we’ve still got a long way to go.

The twist to all of this is that, while we tend to view present and future circumstances more negatively, we tend to look at the past as better than it actually was. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our current president’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

The slogan might make for a catchy hashtag and dad hat, but what era exactly are we trying to get back to? If you dig into history even a little, you’d realize that this idealized version of the past that half of America is longing to get back to never existed. A more apt – if less affective – motto would have been “Continue to Make America a Little Better Each Day.”

In order for something like to have resonance with people, they’d need to recognize that progress that has been, and continues to be, made. This is something that both sides of the political spectrum seem to be incapable of noticing. Consider the following statistic from Rosling around the amount of violent crime in America.

In the United States, the violent-crime rate has been on a downward trend since 1990. Just under 14.5 million crimes were reported in 1990. By 2016 that figure was well under 9.5 million. Each time something horrific or shocking happened, which was pretty much every year, a crisis was reported. The majority of people, the vast majority of the time, believe that violent crime is getting worse.

When we only focus on the negative, we lose hope, and…

The loss of hope is probably the most devastating consequence of the negativity instinct and the ignorance it causes.

By all means, continue to march. Continue to be enraged by the injustices happening in our world. I’ll be right there with you. But when we all head home at night, let’s go to bed with a healthy dose of hope for the future.

I know that’s easier said than done, and since negativity is our instinctual response, it’s helpful to have some tools to combat it. Here are a few recommended by Rosling:

  • Recognize that things can be both bad and better.
  • Expect that the media will focus on negative news and that the vast majority of positive improvements won’t be found there (you can find them by looking at the statistics).
  • Don’t view the past through rose-tinted glasses. By clearly recognizing that things in the past were actually not as good as we remember, it will help us appreciate what we have today even more.

Reading Factfulness will give you a renewed sense of appreciation for the world we live in. However, if you’re not ready to make that much of a commitment yet, check out the video below. I promise you’ll feel better after watching it.