Perspective and memory are interesting things. Our memories of the past are shaped and re-shaped by a nearly infinite number of factors that all interact in ways we only somewhat understand. Combine that with questions about things we’ve already experienced, and perspective becomes challenging at best. In an incredible, well-researched, and extensive article in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman points out that, quote:
In “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker looks at recent studies and finds that majorities in fourteen countries—Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand, the U.A.E., and the United States—believe that the world is getting worse rather than better. (China is the only large country in which a majority expresses optimism.)
So overall, we tend to think the world is getting worse, unless you’re in China. Why is that the case? There’s plenty of theories as to why it may be. As Art Markman writes, quote:
Research by Tory Higgins and Charles Stangor in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1988 […] point out that when people make judgments about things, they usually do it in relation to something else. For example, when they say that a concert is excellent, they mean that it is excellent compared to the concerts they have seen up to that point.
They argue that when people think back to events in the past, they remember the evaluation they gave that event, but not the reason for that evaluation. When we look back on events from our youth, we are likely to remember many things as being excellent, or awesome, or brilliant. We just forget how we decided on their excellence or brilliance.
In other words, our setpoints are a bit skewed at times, by our own perspective as much as they are by the perspectives that we interact with around us. There’s plenty of good news, signs of progress, and experiences in the world that could point to things being quote-unquote better. But whatever may be the case on a worldwide or countrywide scale, that says very little about how you personally feel. So how do you measure things? On what scale? And where do those scales balance out?