If you're pessimistic about the state of world today, Bill Gates and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker have a message for you: "This bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong--wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn't-be-more-wrong."
The quote appears on the first page of Pinker's new book, Enlightenment Now. In a recent blog post, Bill Gates calls it his new "favorite book of all time." Pinker and Gates are optimists. They see the world differently than most people, and they have the data to prove it. In the first few pages of Pinker's book, he makes the point that civilization has made "spectacular progress" in nearly every possible way. Here's the kicker--almost nobody knows about it because most people focus on the negative. Change your thinking; change your life.
Each chapter of Pinker's book covers striking accomplishments in 15 areas including: life, health, wealth/abundance, peace, safety, equal rights, and more. In this paragraph, Pinker gives us a small glimpse of "the gifts" we take for granted:
Newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger, and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection...critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world's knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.
Bill Gates says he loves the book because leaders who make a difference focus on positive progress instead of fixating exclusively on problems.
Great Leaders Have Perspective
Inspiring leaders lift people up because they have historical and global perspective, as I noted in this article about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. As Pinker notes, "Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat...problems are inevitable; but problems are solvable."
Here's just one example of how Pinker's book puts our lives into perspective. He asks the question, How long do you think the average person in the world can be expected to live today? Multinational surveys show that fewer than 1 in 4 people answer the question correctly. The answer: 71.4 years. In the mid-18th century, life expectancy for the world as a whole was 29 years of age. And that number had barely budged in the previous 225 years.
According to Pinker, if we had "a shred of cosmic gratitude," we'd be very happy about all the progress we've made just in the last 20 years, let alone the last 200. But polls show that Americans simply aren't much happier than our counterparts were decades ago. Pinker says our mental biases are to blame; biases that great leaders have learned to manage or overcome.
3 Cognitive Biases That Hold Us Back
Pinker cites several built-in biases that prevent us from seeing the world in perspective.
1. Theory of the hedonic treadmill. Although we make more and live better and longer than any generation in history, people "adapt to changes in their fortunes...and quickly return to a genetically determined baseline," writes Pinker. In other words, we're always chasing rainbows. We might be momentarily happy when we buy a new car or get a bump in salary or land a new job, but we quickly regress to a previous baseline of happiness.
2. Theory of social comparison. This bias explains why people think the world is worse off when it's actually richer by every measure, according to Pinker. All too often, our happiness is determined by how well we think we're doing compared to others. Instead, we should be focusing on how far we've all come.
3. Availability heuristic. According to Pinker, the bias can be summed up as "bad is stronger than good." The psychological literature is well-established on the topic. We "dwell on setbacks more than we savor good fortune," says Pinker. We focus on dystopian headlines and overlook the positive trends.
According to Pinker, the "steady drumbeat of doom" on the news doesn't help. When we look for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen, the consequences to our mental state are quite serious. Pessimism raises our anxiety, decreases our happiness, saps our energy, and gives us the feeling that the world's problems are getting worse and can't be solved. These are not the qualities of leaders people want to follow.
Since the history of progress is "a glorious narrative...uplifting and inspiring," leaders who want to inspire others would benefit from reading Pinker's perspective. Bill Gates already has.