The Current

Why you should be happy you're alive right now

In his new book, Steven Pinker argues that our culture's focus on negativity blinds us from humanity's achievements. The facts support optimism, he says, and should embolden us to solve whatever problems our society faces.
Looking back over the last 200 years, there are several reasons to be optimistic, says Steven Pinker. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)

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The modern world is driven by pessimism, but it's actually the best moment in time to be alive, according to a Harvard professor.

"If you had to pick a time in history to be born, and you didn't know where you'd be or who you'd be, you'd pick now," says Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

But we don't recognize the relative security of our modern lives, he says, because we have a cultural amnesia about what life was like centuries — or mere decades — ago and we focus on the negatives. 

He acknowledges, however, that progress and improvement are not evenly spread across the world. 

In his new book, Steven Pinker argues that we too easily overlook our society's achievements when we get distracted by the modern world's 'indiscriminate pessimism.' (Rose Lincoln/Penguin Random House)

Pinker spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, and why right now is a wonderful time to be alive.

We're living longer 

In the 18th century, you could expect to live to the ripe old age of 30, and you'd probably spend those years not being able to read or write.

"Now in the developed world, it's 80," Pinker says of modern life expectancy, "and even worldwide, it's 71."

The world is enjoying a literacy rate of 90 per cent for people under 25, he adds.

These improvements are down to the Enlightenment, Pinker says, a period of intellectualism that flourished in the second half of the 18th century.

"[It was] a burst of ideas that promoted reason over dogma," he says, describing it as a time that foregrounded science and developed ideas like democracy.

There was a belief in the possibility of progress, Pinker says, and that humanity could solve problems and make people better off.

We care about people being displaced or suffering anywhere on Earth.- Steven Pinker

People care about people

When Pinker was a child, bullying was a normal part of childhood.

"Now our moral circle has expanded to include children, and them being traumatized is an item on our moral agenda."

It's not the world's top priority, he says, but it's an example of how people care more about other people.

Bullying used to be a fact of life, but Pinker argues that our moral agenda has expanded to include children, and the lives of people we'll never meet. (Getty Images)

"We care about people being displaced or suffering anywhere on Earth."

Technology has helped raise that global awareness, he notes.

"In the '50s and '60s there were regions that had genocide and mass killings and displacements that were just not on the world's agenda at the time, and that many people forget today."

"Now you've got billions of people who are on-the-spot reporters, and can beam colour video footage to the web instantly."

Extreme poverty is dwindling 

Since 1990, extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than half, according to the UN.

"The United Nations has set a goal of eliminating extreme poverty everywhere by the year 2030," he says.

"[It's] an ambitious goal... but it's not utopian or romantic, it is possible."

"It's going to be the hardest to eliminate extreme poverty in the very poorest countries — in Haiti, in Congo, in Afghanistan — but still progress has been made even there."

Housework has been reduced significantly, though Pinker acknowledges it's still unevenly split between genders. (Getty Images)

We're working less

The work week in the West used to be 60 hours, Pinker says, and now it's less than 40.

In the past 100 years, the demands of housework have fallen.

"Huge chunks of our life have been returned to us because of labour-saving devices like refrigerators and washing machines and vacuum cleaners," he says.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.

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