Skip to main content

It's Never as Bad as It Seems

·4 mins

We humans are complex animals, and our brains developed over hundreds of thousands of years to survive on a rugged unforgiving planet. We invented technologies that became luxuries, and for many (in the West, at least) we live relatively easy lives, by historical standards. It wasn’t until the late 1800s in the US that indoor plumbing was commonplace, which is surprisingly recent.

One weakness of our well-adapted brains is that we tend to feel losses more strongly than gains. This is a well-known phenomenon in the investing world, as seeing your account go down feels much worse than watching it go up. It’s not just that it feels worse, but the magnitude of the feeling is much greater when we lose than win.

I should be clear, there are a lot of major problems in the world, such as:

  • We’re experiencing a climate crisis that can’t be hand-waved away with marketing material and techno-hopium.
  • There are senseless ongoing wars that serve no valuable purpose other than allowing some handful of people to retain power and control over others.
  • We’re seemingly entering a neofeudalistic period–a second Gilded Age perhaps–where wealth has become highly concentrated in the hands of a few obscenely wealthy individuals.
  • Even in Western democracies, political power is mostly in the hands of de facto oligarchs who wield power through lobbying and using various forms of media to control messaging.
  • Public spaces and communities have largely been displaced by companies selling products and services.
  • Wage growth remains far below the increase in costs of basic needs such as food and housing.
  • Nearly every surface of our planet (and thus our food supply) is contaminated with microplastics, PFASs, and other synthetic compounds that have deleterious effects we don’t fully understand yet.

Despite all that, there is a lot to be thankful for. Gratitude goes a long way in taking the edge off reality, and so we should certainly remind ourselves of some of the great things humans have accomplished recently, such as:

  • We’ve created numerous vaccines for a variety of illnesses (some of which have been nearly eradicated, such as Polio).
  • We discovered antibiotics, which allow us to treat infections that would otherwise cause severe illness or even death.
  • Most recently, a new class of drugs (GLP-1 agonists) may have the ability to cure obesity and prevent type 2 diabetes.
  • Heat pumps and insulation allow us to affordably live comfortably in homes in nearly any climate.
  • The Internet allows us to communicate with strangers anywhere in the world and form wonderful communities.
  • Vast quantities of information are freely available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection (thanks Wikipedia!), something that would be unfathomable a mere few decades ago.

To be clear, I’m not a big fan of Steven Pinker, but he’s generally correct about the fact that most quality-of-life metrics have gone up and to the right.

Why then, for so many of us, does life feel so difficult? The answer, I think, is pretty simple: it’s a combination of our natural tendency of mean reversion, or homeostasis, and the hedonic treadmill. We tend to feel big quick changes, but we don’t notice so much when things change slowly. Additionally, there are many issues we don’t make progress on because they are antithetical to growth or greed (such as climate change or wealth inequality). Even in an entirely different economic or political system, the problems would likely remain because, at the end of the day, humans have adapted to hoard and self-preserve.

That brings me to my final point, the title of this post: even when things do seem bad, it tends to be that they’re not as bad as they seem. Our brains tend to get into hyperfixated states when it comes to anything scary, and we lose sight of the big picture. Our minds start to race, negative thoughts perpetuate themselves, and we get stuck into cycles and patterns that are detrimental.

Anxiety occurs when we feel challenged, but are unsure how to overcome the challenge. It’s a natural response to the fear that something bad may happen in the future, and it likely served us well as hunter-gatherers, but for most people, this response is a net negative.

These days most of our worries aren’t so much about getting trampled by bison, but our brains still operate in such a way that we treat theoretical threats as being real, which induces a very real physical response. The reality, however, is that while we do have to worry about paying the bills or keeping the fridge stocked, we don’t have to worry so much about the kind of threats our anxieties helped protect us from in the natural environment.