Note: I have no financial ties to either the authors or publishers of these books. I received no financial compensation for having written this article and the information contained should not be considered a book review. The views presented are my own.
2020 will go on record as being one of the most difficult years in the history of the world. I genuinely believe that the impacts from the global pandemic will continue to reverberate and be felt for many years to come. Still, as vaccination rates continue to rise, businesses and the economy are re-opening. Hope is returning and the excitement is palpable. It can be easy to forget that just six months ago we were all encouraged to avoid gathering during the holiday season for fear of increased transmission.
In my work as a psychologist, I am keenly aware of the impact of social and news media on the mental health of the people that I see. Many people, who were able to manage difficulties with their mental health pre-pandemic, are flocking to seek services now. It is my belief that a major contributor to this is exposure to persistently negative news media. A quick reflection will substantiate this claim. Think of the last media that you were exposed to (news or social); now reflect on the content of this media. Was it of a positive or negative nature?
Few people are aware of the impact that this constant bombardment can have on their mental health. As our exposure to negative media increases, it starts to shift our perceptions of the world around us and distort our hopes for the future. These distorted thoughts can cause very real physiological effects (the “fight or flight” response) that can be very damaging to the body at prolonged levels. This was the situation that I found myself in approximately 16 months ago. Contrary to public belief, psychologists are not robots and can fall prey to the same biases as everyone else. As I became intensely focused on the negative events around me, I began to miss the bigger picture; to miss the forest for the trees as they say.
“Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker and “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling were both instrumental tools to help me to reframe my own thoughts over the past year, and I would not hesitate to recommend either of them to anyone that I meet. Both books listed above are similar in that they both employ a scientific approach with the goal of proving that our assumptions about the world around us are often wrong. If you listen purely to news media, or to what you get filtered to you via social media, you can quite rightly assume that the world is doomed. The books named above prove via science and statistics that far from the apocalypse, we are currently living in the best times in history for humanity. More people are escaping poverty, living longer/healthier lives, accessing education, and living in safety and peace than at any other time in our shared past.
To be sure, neither Mr. Pinker nor Mr. Rosling argue that we are currently living in a utopia. Both authors quite rightly point out that the world still has a long way to go, particularly in the areas of inequality, human rights, and environmentalism. The point is not to gloss over these issues, but rather to “zoom out” and compare where we are today with what life was like several hundred years ago from a global perspective. It is only by doing so that we can quantify our current predicaments and (dare I say) celebrate our shared accomplishments.
I found both books to be a very refreshing change of pace. Though they do touch on similar subject matter, they are written in quite a different way. Mr. Rosling’s book (“Factfulness”) will appeal to the vast majority. It is written in a simple way that takes complicated material and breaks it down into easily understandable, manageable chunks. Mr. Pinker’s book (“Enlightenment Now”) takes more of a scientific approach and weaves concepts such as the enlightenment and humanism into his argument. As such I suspect that the majority would find “Enlightenment Now” to be the more challenging read. This in no way takes anything away from Mr. Pinker’s book. Truthfully, I found that I enjoyed his take on the situation more, but it can be challenging to follow at times.
If, like I was, you are currently finding it difficult to feel positive about the world right now, I would humbly suggest limiting your own exposure to the types of media discussed already. An interesting thing happens when we do. The world moves on and we do not become so emotionally involved with every incident. Gradually the way we think about the world changes, and we stop seeing threat or catastrophe around every corner. You may also choose to pair this change with an injection of realism from either of the two books discussed in this post. You will most likely find these small changes to be immensely helpful. I know that I did.
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