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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Beyond the Smile: Unveiling the Dark Side of Progress

Updated: Apr 1

Despite our progress, there are good reasons why we feel bad about our world.



KEY POINTS

  • We all seek happiness in life. While we have made much progress, our levels of happiness have stagnated.

  • Once we have the benefits of modernity, more progress is not translating to greater levels of happiness.

  • Despite our great progress, there are good reasons why many of us are feeling more stressed and overwhelmed.

  • What if we are not feeling happier despite our progress, but because of it?

Many of us seek happiness in life, and the progress humanity has made over the centuries has undoubtedly resulted in increased well-being for countless people. On a societal level, being alive right here, right now, is our best chance at having a good life than at any time in our history. On a personal level, most of us, especially within WEIRD countries (i.e., Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), rate ourselves as fairly to very happy or satisfied with life.


Yet it’s also true that, despite the incredible progress humanity has made, many of us feel quite dissatisfied with our own countries as a whole and are very pessimistic about the future. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. From a historical standpoint, so many of us are living "the good life" because our basic needs are more than met, and we enjoy a wealth of creature comforts.


In addition to our abundant lives, we know more about happiness and can transmit this knowledge better than at any point in our history. Think of the easy access we have to happiness-based books, podcasts, YouTube videos, social media posts, happiness apps, self-help gurus, and manuals, as well as the countless millions of us taking antidepressant medications and seeing therapists. Yet we don’t seem to be making much progress on our happiness—at least not in WEIRD countries.


Here's the important point: More "progress" is not translating to more happiness. What the heck is going on here?


Reasons We Believe That The World Is Getting Worse

We must remember that these multiple, seemingly contradictory, truths can co-exist. Thus, we must refrain from thinking dualistically (i.e., in black-or-white, or all-or-nothing) terms here. Yes, humanity has made great progress. Yes, humanity still has a lot of room for improvement, and yes, we are pessimistic about our respective countries and our futures.


The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald


How can we explain why we feel like things are so bad and getting worse, despite the facts about our tremendous progress? And how can this be the case even though so many of us, especially in WEIRD countries, are benefitting greatly from the tremendous progress that has been made? How is it that, even as so many aspects of our world and our lives get better with progress, we feel so pessimistic about the future?


The Amount of Suffering in This World

While we have made incredible progress over the centuries, there are still disconcerting levels of suffering in this world. For instance, while a smaller percentage of people live in poverty, the world population has risen significantly in the past few centuries. According to the World Bank, we have almost 700 million people living in extreme poverty right now, on less than $2.15/day. To put this into perspective, this is a higher number than the entire population of the world in 1700 (610 million).


As another source of suffering in this modern world, despite institutional slavery being abolished, about 50 million people live in modern slavery (e.g., human trafficking, forced labor). Moreover, tens of millions of people die each year from preventable causes (e.g., infectious diseases, starvation/malnutrition, lack of clean water/sanitation, lack of vaccines for preventable diseases, infant/child mortality, accidents).


Thus, even with our progress, the aggregate amount of suffering that occurs in this world on a daily basis is staggering. Many of us are aware of the tremendous amount of suffering and injustice in the world, partly because this information is so readily available. The knowledge of these harsh realities is understandably quite stressful and depressing.


The Serious Challenges That Humanity Faces

In addition to the amount of suffering that occurs in our world daily, many of us believe that, and feel like, the world is getting worse and are pessimistic about the future for another reason: Humanity has some huge, and extremely thorny, challenges on our collective plate. What's worse is this reality: Each of these challenges is intertwined with the progress we cherish.


This list of challenges is not exhaustive, but most of these should be familiar to you. It is our familiarity with and awareness of these complex challenges that is probably contributing to our collective pessimism, particularly in WEIRD countries.


1. Climate change: Our planet's alarming warming trend signals distress for life, ecosystems, and economies alike.


2. Biodiversity loss: The stark decline in wildlife since 1970 mirrors severe environmental distress.


3. Nuclear risks: Nations like North Korea and Iran add to the persisting dread of nuclear conflict.


4. Mental health crisis: Rising mental health issues, coupled with loneliness, reflect a society struggling despite technological connection.


5. Socio-political turmoil: Persistent conflicts, exemplified by Ukraine and Israel-Palestine, fuel global instability.


6. Political polarization: Deepening divisions, especially in the U.S., erode social cohesion and democratic norms.


7. Authoritarian trends: The spread of authoritarianism poses a direct threat to global democracy and human rights.


8. Poverty and inequality: Despite advancements, stark economic divides and extreme poverty persist.


9. Healthcare accessibility: A staggering half of the global population lacks essential health services.


10. Educational disparities: The pandemic has magnified inequalities in education, impacting young lives worldwide.


11. Cybersecurity threats: The digital revolution brings its own set of risks, challenging our safety and privacy.


12. AI's existential risks: The rapid evolution of AI presents possible dangers to societal stability and poses existential risks.


These challenges, while overwhelming, are not insurmountable yet they serve as a sobering reminder: Progress is not a linear path to utopia. It brings its own set of complexities, demanding our attention and action. As we ponder the paradox of modernity—immense progress alongside significant challenges—it becomes clear that our journey towards a better future is far from straightforward.


A sobering reality we must face and accept is this: Our past progress is no guarantee of continued progress. For example, the toxic divisions within America, such as negative partisanship and a loss of faith in our elections, government institutions, and one another, are a threat to the future of the United States. The idea that our democracy could break, which is a thought that probably didn’t trouble us much until recent years, has many Americans quite worried about our future.


Humanity’s Inflection Point

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were likely largely and blissfully unaware of troubles outside their immediate tribe. They were concerned with surviving and making it through the day. This also applies to previous generations within civilization, most of whom could not afford to be preoccupied with worry about global problems. Moreover, they were probably unaware of most of them.


Nowadays, our world is more connected than ever. Through advances in our technology such as the internet, smartphones, and social media, we’ve become a global community. We have more access to information (and misinformation) about the world, and to each other, than at any time in history. Perhaps this is part of the problem, and why so many of us are reasonably concerned about the state of the world and the direction we are heading. Our connectedness through our technologies exposes us to a tsunami of negative information about our world that can be quite overwhelming for us.


Our negativity bias ensures that we are drawn to and consume more negative news than positive. There is much truth to the long-time adage within journalism that, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Also, because of "the power of bad," negative news affects us more negatively than positive news affects us positively.


In a manner of speaking, the internet is like eating the Forbidden Fruit, and the knowledge of all the evils and ills of the world threatens to consume us. Sometimes ignorance is, indeed, a kind of bliss. While knowledge is power, knowledge dominated by a tsunami of negativity is overwhelming, stressful, and depressing.


Multiple truths co-exist. It is a great time to be alive in so many ways because of the amazing progress humanity has made. Most of us benefit immensely daily from the many creature comforts of modernity. Yet humanity has some daunting, and very complicated, challenges ahead.


I am going to make a provocative claim: What if most of the modern problems of our world are not despite the wonders of modernity, but a result of them? In other words, what if we are not happier despite our progress but because of our progress? What if more "progress" actually leads to greater levels of unhappiness and unrest? On some level, I believe that many of us know or sense this to be true as we try desperately to keep up with this rapidly accelerating treadmill of life. We will continue to explore these themes in future blogs, so please take the "red pill" and follow me down the rabbit hole!

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