If everything’s going great, why do we think it’s bad?
People are healthier, richer, safer and freer than ever, says psychologist Steven Pinker. But are they happy? ‘Happiness isn’t everything,’ says the author of ‘Enlightenment Now’
Steven Pinker at the Shelbourne Hotel. “People express discontent when asked about the state of their country, but when asked about their own fortunes they’re not nearly as pessimistic.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Standing in the lobby of Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel, dapper and lean in his pin-striped jacket, rainbow-hued tie and button-down shirt, Steven Pinker looks anything but the star intellectual he is.
Spry and accommodating, he could be the manager of an exclusive boutique hotel, or perhaps, with his mane of rolling grey curls, an ageing rock star, waiting to do his umpteenth interview.
And yet there is something Bono-esque about his zeal in tackling the big issues in society. A professor of psychology at Harvard turned popular science author, Pinker has just published a substantial and wide-ranging book on the state of our world today.
Enlightenment Now is his attempt to restate the ideals of the 18th-century Enlightenment “in the language and concepts of the 21st century”. It is a paean to the founding principles of that movement: reason, science, humanism and progress. It is also a broadside against the doom-mongers and what Pinker sees as the enemies of progress: religion, tribalism and narrow nationalism, the Green movement and fatalistic beliefs in the decline of society.
In forensic detail, Pinker enumerates the myriad ways in which life is getting better: “people are getting not just healthier, richer and safer, but freer”; “they are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable and smarter”.
The book is packed with statistics vaunting the gifts of progress. The world is 100 times wealthier than it was 200 years ago and wealth is more evenly shared. You are less likely to die in a car crash or fire, or at work or during a war, than at any time in the recent past. An American is 800 times less likely to die by terrorism than a car crash. And so on.
The reviews have been mixed. While accepting much of Pinker’s data, many critics have pointed to the extent of inequality in contemporary society.
Pinker maintains the “obsession” with inequality is “misplaced”. “There are real problems associated with inequality, such as the excess power of the wealthy, and the wellbeing of the poor and middle-classes. Yet the focus on the gap between the rich and poor is morally less significant than that on the state of living of the poor.”
“It’s not whether everyone has the same,” he tells me. “It’s whether everyone has enough.”
All of which might come as cold comfort to those whose jobs and livelihoods are under threat from globalisation and technological change.
Pinker argues that globalisation, having benefited the “vast bulk of humanity”, has been overwhelmingly positive, but he does acknowledge a “notch” in the growth curve which has seen the lower middle classes in many wealthier countries – factory workers, smaller business owners, professionals such as teachers or journalists – lose out.
All the same, he says, “It doesn’t make sense for tens of millions of people to pay huge amounts more for clothing to save a few tens of thousands of people’s jobs in the apparel industry.”
Likewise, why preserve a coal mining industry if it is “economically and ecologically useless”?
There’s a bad habit in journalistic culture, which is to equate journalistic seriousness with bad news and the worst possible spin on events
But if all is going so swimmingly, why do so many people think things are not getting better, but worse? Pinker puts forward a number of theories to explain this pessimism. “People express discontent when asked about the state of their country, but when asked about their own fortunes they’re not nearly as pessimistic,” he points out.
Scientists call this phenomenon the optimism gap. You can see it at work in Ireland, where repeated surveys show us to be among the happiest nations in Europe, reporting high levels of good personal health, even as anger and chaos are the defining characteristics of public discourse and many public services.
Part of the reason for pervasive pessimism has also to do with the mass media, he says. “There’s a bad habit in journalistic culture, which is to equate journalistic seriousness with bad news and the worst possible spin on events.”
Journalists should, when reporting on issues such as suffering and injustice, also cover areas where these problems have been successfully addressed, he argues.
“Otherwise you are presenting just half the picture. Not everything goes wrong everywhere, always. There are countries at peace. There are cities that have brought crime rates down, as well as countries that have reduced poverty.”
Pinker’s tome has also been criticised as a screed for capitalism and the status quo, but the author argues this is unfair. The claim that things are getting better is different from saying that things are fine, he points out. “There’s a difference between identifying problems and being nostalgic for a theoretical golden age in the past.”
“Neither is it a brief for anarcho-capitalism, a libertarian fantasy in which there is no government regulation and social spending. There are massive advantages to capitalism – it makes people richer – but markets cannot put a price on pollution, or taking care of children, the elderly or the sick, and that’s why you need social spending.”
Yet, thanks to globalisation, we live in a world where chief executive earnings are three-digit multiples of their employees’ salaries, and billionaires are richer than individual countries. It comes as no surprise that Bill Gates is a fan of Pinker’s writing and has described Enlightenment Now as “my new favourite book of all time” (replacing Pinker’s previous opus, on the decline of violence in society).
The super-rich, by the simple fact of their existence, do not necessarily distort politics, Pinker counters, though he concedes they may use their wealth to this end “if the laws are not crafted to prevent this”.
Which, when you think about it, is what happens in too many parts of the world.
Not just politically middle of the road, but avowedly so, Pinker is forthright, even foolhardy, in his denunciations of hard left and right, not to mention religion and the Green movement.
“One of the biggest threats to reason is political tribalism of the left and the right. When beliefs get singled out as identity badges for either side, that’s when people become impervious to evidence and selectively hoover up the evidence that supports their position.”
Although the book was conceived and largely written before Donald Trump’s rise to power, the shadow of what he calls “our slightly unhinged president” looms large in its pages.
Pinker sees Trumpism as the latest manifestation of a series of movements that have sprung up over history aiming to undo the achievements of the Enlightenment: the Counter-Enlightenment, Romanticism, militarism, etc.
“They all valorise the national as against all humanity; they see relations between groups as zero sum as opposed to offering opportunities for co-operation; they are not particularly congenial to science, but highly congenial to religion.”
Trump threatens “every measure of progress”, he acknowledges. “Many of his positions are repudiations of what led to progress, such as international co-operation, social spending, environmental regulations and agreements on nuclear war.”
For all the protestations on campuses that diversity is a good thing, in practice it has often amounted to people who look different but think alike
But it is “too soon to say” whether the bequiffed US leader is the first of a line of demagogues or whether he represents the the dying wasp’s sting of populism.
The #MeToo movement, despite some excesses, has brought much-needed change in helping to tackle sexual harassment of women, he believes.
Given his forthright views on society, it is no surprise that Pinker has found himself enmeshed in the increasingly fraught cultural and political debates on US campuses. He bemoans the decline in tolerance of diverse views and the ascendance of a “hard-left orthodoxy that is considered to be the only acceptable viewpoint”.
“For all the protestations on campuses that diversity is a good thing, in practice it has often amounted to people who look different but think alike and that can’t be a good thing. None of us is infallible.”
His assertion that the alt-right movement drew strength from the “repression” and “marginalisation” of young men by on-campus orthodoxy saw him bracketed by detractors with the controversial right-wing movement.
The experience of being subjected to what he terms “a tissue of distortions” – when remarks he made at Harvard were “doctored to make it seem like I was justifying the alt-right, when I was saying we needed tactics to combat it” – clearly stills rankles.
For a liberal Jewish intellectual to come to the defence of a movement that is illiberal and sometimes anti-Semitic would be “pretty unlikely”, he points out.
Pinker is a humanist, and an atheist. Humanism, he says, spurs on his moral commitment to the well-being of human beings and other living things.
The point of life? He straightens his tie: “To enjoy the capacities each of us have toward pleasure, knowledge and fulfilment and to ensure others do the same.”
And happiness (to which a chapter in the book is devoted)? “I distinguish happiness from meaningfulness and other dimensions of having a good life. Many of us make choices that make us less happy but that define worthwhile lives.”
Parents’ happiness, for example, falls when they have children, though for most of them, children will be the most meaningful thing in their lives, he says. Pinker hasn’t had any children himself, due to “a choice in previous marriage” – “so much to worry about when bringing up a child, so many things to go wrong”.
Writing books, too, can affect happiness, due to the possibility of bad reviews, he muses.
“Still, happiness isn’t all there is.”