A range of explanations for pessimism
I have just been reading a draft article about public attitudes soon to appear in a current affairs magazine. The article uses a battery of statistics to highlight the paradoxical nature of our attitudes. To put it in a nutshell:
- Generally, we are happy and optimistic about own lives and families
- Important objective aspects of our lives ranging from health to affluence (notwithstanding the current crisis) to life expectancy are improving
- Many ‘social fabric’ indicators including crime levels, teen pregnancy, divorce and even drink and drug consumption, are either static or going in the right direction, and are anyway not that much different from ‘happier’ countries like Denmark
Yet despite all this we – like the other big four Western European countries – are ever more pessimistic about the direction in which we think the country is going. There is a range of explanations for this phenomenon.
Inequality. Many social researchers and progressive commentators argue that the more equal a country is the happier it is. We may be better off than we were but we are also more unequal, hence more unhappy about society.
Migration and diversity. Robert Putnam and others have shown how people who live in diverse and fast changing communities are – regardless of their own background – less content.
Politics. Our pessimism about society is really just pessimism about this Government. Would a new Government restore the heady optimism of the summer of 1997?
Decline in values. From Melanie Phillips to Richard Reeves to David Cameron there are those who highlight a decline in morality and public spiritedness. Is this why we are so open to the Conservative’s Broken Society mantra?
Private hubris, public despair. This is the thesis I outlined a few months ago. The rise and rise of individualism coupled with the decline of collective institutions means we have an exaggerated account of our own efficacy (which appears to be a hard wired trait) and a diminished account of society’s scope for collective progress
The media. Bad news sells. Most of us get our information about the world out there from a media ever more desperate to get our attention by peddling rage and fear. This view is underlined by the gap between the positive story we offer about our own communities and public services and the negative view we have of communities and services at large.
Each of these accounts is worth exploring but none of them are wholly convincing. But social pessimism is a bad thing – it undermines trust and the myth of decline contributes to bad politics and policy making.
‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ said Franklin D. Roosevelt in his inaugural address. The modern version is ‘we have nothing to be pessimistic about but pessimism itself’.