In 2003 Gregg Easterbrook wrote a book named The Progress Paradox. How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. He argued that, while objectively almost all aspects of Western life had become much better, most people actually felt worse. I agree that objectively, across the board, life has become better for most people in most places (example). I think the progress paradox is not necessarily that people have become less happy (I am not entirely sure but I think that even happiness of most people has become greater). Rather, the progress paradox, as I see it, is that while progress has happened people tend not to perceive it.

 

Progress yet pessimism

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley has written about how many people are pessimistic about the future of the world, while nearly on all dimensions the world has actually become better. Another case in point is Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature in which he describes that while most people think that the world is becoming more and more violent, violence is actually on a steady decline and has been since ancient history.¬†How can such improvements, which can be so clearly documented, go hand in hand with such pessimism about the state and the future of the world?

 

We adapt to progress and stop to notice it

One explanation may have to do with sensory adaptation which means that our nervous system diminishes its responsiveness to a constant stimulus over time. So while something has become structurally better, we get used to it and we lose our ability to perceive it well. While clean water is always available to us, we no longer notice it and therefore we don’t consciously appreciate it. Does this mean clean water is no big deal anyway? It doesn’t. As long as we don’t have access to clean water it is so important that it can dominate our entire life. The paradox is, as soon as clean water will have become abundant, our perception of the world can be dominated by other concerns and clean water is no longer something we think about much. Instead we may focus on new problems such as how people can sometimes be so rude to one another.

 

Should we learn to notice progress more accurately?

Should we change this? Should we try to build a world in which we become better at cherishing any progress we make? Should we develop our ability to notice and keep noticing progress? Or are things fine as they are? Is the fact that we forget about past progress useful? By forgetting that the world has actually become much better we become dissatisfied enough to keep doing our best to improve the world some more. In other words, the pessimism about the world may be unrealistic (because the world is actually getting better and better) but it may be useful because it fuels our efforts to make future progress.

 

What do you think?

 

 

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