In the time it takes you to read this article, about three hundred people will have risen out of extreme poverty, and it’s been happening for the past 25 years. You won’t hear about it on the news or see it celebrated across social media. And yet, according to Bill Gates, it’s “among the most underappreciated and most important developments of our generation.”
Bill Gates is an optimist in part because some of the books he’s read in 2018 give him hope.
1. Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
Earlier this year I sat down with Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker after Bill Gates said Enlightenment Now is his favorite book of all time. According to Pinker, if you consume negative news constantly, research shows you’ll become gloomy. You’ll make poor decisions. You’ll experience higher levels of anxiety, a worse mood, and more hostility. Worst of all, you’ll spread these emotions to others. These aren’t exactly the traits of a successful entrepreneur.
Pinker explains that a “mental bug” is to blame. Simply put, “bad is stronger than good.” Instead of focusing on the abundance that surrounds us every moment of every day, we’re more likely to share bad news, consume bad news and let bad news effect our moods and decisions.
Pinker’s right. I was a television news anchor for fifteen years. The only time I covered good news was around the holidays or at the end of a newscast when we found video of a firefighter rescuing a cat in a tree. Good news isn’t “news” because it happens every second of every day. And that’s why, according to Pinker, “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being and…almost no one knows about it.”
2. Factfulness by Hans Rosling
Bill Gates loves this book so much, he gave a free copy to every U.S. college graduate who wanted it.
Rosling–the late statistician and data scientist–writes that the standard of living for most people in world is getting so much better that “We should have a party. A big party!” Instead, he says, “we are gloomy.” Why? Again, the negativity instinct kicks in where bad is stronger than good.
Rosling says our brains are wired to jump to conclusions–even when those conclusions are factually wrong. Our brains are wired to tune in to dramatic stories, threats and bad news. These were useful instincts thousands of years ago, but it results in excessive worry and poor decisions in the present.
The big takeaway from Rosling’s book is that most people don’t know the world is getting better. For decades, Rosling surveyed thousands of people around the world and asked basic questions about poverty, wealthy, violence, death, health, education, etc. In every survey, most people simply don’t know that the world is much better in nearly every way. “Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless than it really is,” writes Rosling.
Easterbrook’s book opens with a quote from the eternal optimist, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization is forever upward.”
Optimism, says Easterbrook, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t worry about anything ever again. Instead, optimism should gives you the confidence that you can handle any problem that comes your way.
Easterbrook’s book explains why Americans feel worse off today even though they’re better off–statistically–than ever before. According to Easterbrook, a generation ago your parents and grandparents got bad news once a day in the form of the morning paper or perhaps the nightly news on one of three networks. Today, the 24-hour news cycle and social media at our fingertips brings a never-ending cascade of bad news which, remember, is stronger than good.
“Every day we’re bludgeoned by news of how bad everything is…yet, we’ve made more progress over the last 100 years than in the first 100,000,” writes Easterbrook.