It's only fair to share…

It has become the default position to complain about how badly off we are. It is almost a competition to see who can be the biggest victim. No one will state that life in Australia is not too bad. WA Today Columnist Richard Glover noted last year, “No one wants to mumble this sunny truth because it’s so much easier to pander to the pessimistic”.

In fairness, there have been some terrible events over recent weeks. Yet watching the movie Churchill (which focusses on the days leading up to the D Day invasion in 1944) reminded me that previous generations have endured far more than most of us will ever face.

There is absolutely no question that safety is under threat in major western countries. Events in London and Paris demonstrate this clearly. Attempts to downplay the threat does not remove it. However, London and Paris in WW2 were under bomb attack. It could be argued that when you know you are at war, that bombing raids are to be expected whereas in times of peace you do not expect to be blown up.

It then can follow that the idea (not the reality) of a bomb is more terrifying today than in war time. In war, we are mentally “prepared” for threats to safety that in peace time we are not.

In a similar, but also different way, our fear of infectious diseases has increased as their prevalence has decreased. Maybe this is also a reflection that we are less scared of that which is more familiar.

The key issue here is that the likelihood today of being cut down prematurely (in western countries) has never been lower, but our fear is growing. Is this a function of media reports? Is it a function of our ability to know about events far away from us, in a way that previous generations did not? Is it a function of lower resilience today?

It is likely a combination of all that and more.

Is there an antidote to this fear?

Like everyone, I grumble at times but really, it is the best time ever to have been alive, especially in western countries. Consider the lot of those who lived 200, 100 or even 50 years ago. Life expectancies were shorter. Living conditions were not as good. Poverty meant not having enough to eat and no roof over your head.

Far fewer people face this today. Welfare payments are not a king’s ransom but do provide for the basics. Previous generations had to fend for themselves.

Yet pessimism sells. Historian Deidre McCloskey told the New York Times “For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell”. This is not a new phenomenon. John Stuart Mill wrote 150 years ago “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage”.

We see this in health too with doom and gloom predictions even despite ever increasing life expectancies and better overall health. Pessimism is seen as clever. The pessimist sees problems ahead (real or imagined) seeming smarter than those oblivious to “danger”. Pessimism calls for a change in course whereas optimism says keep on the current track – boring!

The times of Churchill are within living memory for some still alive today and only one generation back for many more. It is not ancient history. Life today may not be perfect but for the vast majority of us is better than that of our forebears. Sometimes we all need a reminder of this, myself included.