Summary of Are Things Getting Better or Worse?

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For most of humanity, life is getting better: Statistics reveal improving conditions for most people around the world. At the same time however, pessimism is running rampant: Despite the facts, most people feel conditions are getting worse. In a wide-ranging essay for The New Yorker, writer Joshua Rothman explores this paradox. Drawing from the work of historians, philosophers, pollsters and scientists, he explains why the world isn’t as bad as people think – and how they could be wrong. getAbstract recommends Rothman’s investigation to anyone looking for rational reasons for optimism.

In this summary, you will learn

  • Why accurate estimates of humanity’s progress are difficult to make,
  • What factors cloud perceptions of humanity’s condition, and
  • Why the actual situation qualifies as both “bad” and “getting better.”

About the Author

Joshua Rothman is The New Yorker’s archive editor and a frequent contributor to, where he writes about books and ideas.



Is life on Earth improving – or getting worse? Many people say the latter, but personal opinions don’t necessarily reflect the truth. Much of humanity is enjoying better conditions than their parents experienced: Poverty, violence and pollution are declining, while health care is advancing, people are living longer and, in general, attitudes are becoming more progressive. Given these facts, why do people often feel the world is getting worse? Many factors account for widespread pessimism: The news media have long emphasized negative developments and crises – and their negative slant has been worsening. Social trends such as aging populations and a culture of victimhood on the left and cynicism on the right have exacerbated attitudes of blame and complaint. Smartphones stream bad news into people’s awareness 24/7. And for some, pessimism might serve as a form of self-punishment – a way of taking personal responsibility for the world’s shortcomings.

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