Don’t worry be happy

We are wealthier, healthier and happier than we have ever been. Each successive generation has been able to build upon the knowledge, technology and wealth of earlier generations and add its own.

We have reduced poverty, created wealth and increased life expectancy more in the past 50 years than we did in the past 5000 years.

I am not just saying that the glass is half-full rather than half-empty. I am saying that it used to be empty. Just 200 years ago slavery, feudalism and tyranny ruled the world. By our standards, even the richest countries were extremely poor. The average chance of surviving your first year was less than the chance of surviving to retirement today.

The glass is now at least half-full, and it is being filled as we speak. But despite the fact that we are happy, we don't seem to notice, and we worry.

When we ask people about what has happened in the world, most say that things are getting worse, poverty is on the increase and nature is being destroyed. When we read the papers we see problems, poverty and disasters. Powerful, international movements oppose globalisation and capitalism because they think they increase misery and hunger. And scholars write books saying that we are all sad and depressed.

If there is one thing that does not get better in the world, it is our world view. Why? If the adventure of mankind is such a triumph, why don't we know that?

The first and most obvious villain in this story is evolution. Natural selection has turned mankind's focus towards problems. It's easy to understand that early human beings who sat down after a good meal and relaxed and enjoyed life might not find enough food to make it through the next day, and ran the risk of being eaten by a lion.

Those who were always stressed and looked for problems, who always hunted and gathered a bit more food just in case, and who always kept looking suspiciously at the horizon were the people who found shelter before the storm or before the lion struck. So they survived, and passed on genes full of anxiety and stress.

It's important to be aware of problems, because problems mean that we have to act. If my house is on fire, I need to know now. The fact that my house is nice is not as important. If I hear information that there is something in the food that could kill my children, I need that information now. The fact that there are some nice, new dishes on the market is not as important.

Mankind is a problem-solving species. Those who solved problems survived. And it means we just keep looking for them. The moment we solve a problem we don't stop and enjoy the fact that we triumphed, we look for the next problem, and begin to work to solve it.

We don't lie awake at night and contemplate the fact that we have been able to deal with polio and tuberculosis, we lie awake at night and think about how to deal with HIV/Aids, and worry about what bird flu might mean in the future.

Another perceptual bias strengthens this focus on problems, in our minds and in the media. Whatever is new is news. We are interested in exceptions. We don't see the things that surround us every day. We see the new things, the strange, the unexpected.

We don't have to explain and understand normal, everyday things, but we need to understand the exceptions. So we have a bias that distorts our world view. We notice the things that stand out. In a world that is getting better, we tend to emphasise the problems that remain, even more.

We live longer than ever. Isn't that fantastic? No, because it results in higher costs for pensions and healthcare. At last poor countries make economic progress. Isn't that wonderful? No, because we are afraid that Polish plumbers and Indian programmers will take our jobs.

There is always something to be scared about. In the 1970s, when temperatures were declining, we worried about a new ice age. Now they are increasing and we worry about global warming. We used to worry about everybody who was depressed, now new anti-depressant drugs have reduced suicide in rich countries by a fifth. And so we worry about so many people taking pills.

How can we learn to live in a world, and with a mind, that constantly exaggerates problems and risks? Our greatest ally is knowledge. Knowledge about our mental bias can teach us to bypass it. Every time we hear a problem is getting worse, we should try to look at long-term trends to see if this is really true, or if it is an exaggeration of a short- term variation. And when we hear about risks and possible disasters we should remind ourselves it is just as bad to believe it completely as it is to ignore it completely.

To regain our belief in progress, we have to understand what creates it. It is not coincidence, it is capitalism. The more people alive who are free to think and innovate, the greater the chance that some of them will develop useful knowledge, technology and wealth. If the incentives are correct, if people reap the rewards of their labour, they will use it to change our world for the better.

And in a world where billions are free to create, the chances of a better world are greater than ever. So we should believe in the future. Not naively, not like determinists thinking that nothing can go wrong.

We know that conflicts, terrorism, disease and natural disasters can and will cause enormous damage. But we know that mankind is smart, that a free flow of information and of markets make us smarter and that we deal with problems better if we are free and wealthy. Each generation builds on the achievements of the past, and so we have constantly more to build upon.

Therefore, the greatest progress is yet to be made.

Johan Norberg is head of political ideas at Swedish think tank Timbro and author of best-selling book In Defence of Global Capitalism. This is an edited extract from the John Bonython Lecture `The Wealth of Generations: Capitalism and the Belief in the Future' he gave in Auckland for The Centre for Independent Studies this month.