Things are good, so why are we so pessimistic?

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New research shows us that people around the world, including in the West, are satisfied with their lives and are enjoying a rising quality of life. So why are westerners so pessimistic, asks Nima Sanandaji, of think-tank Captus.


Our planet is a happier place these days. That, at least, is what the Pew Research Center is telling us. Their latest survey of global attitudes in 47 nations has found a number of trends that are worth analyzing.

According to Pew, people in the developing world are growing ever more satisfied with their personal and financial situations. In Latin America, 59 percent report that they consider themselves to have a high quality of life, compared to 44 percent in 2002. In Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa the corresponding figures have risen by 11, 5 and 3 percentage points respectively compared to 2002.

In the US and Western Europe, the figures remain the same as in 2002. US citizens, however, still seem to enjoy the highest quality of life – 65 percent of them claim to do so, compared to 53 percent in Western Europe. Americans are also those most satisfied with their family incomes. 76 percent claim to be so, a rise from 74 percent in 2002. Only 65 percent of Western Europeans give the same response, down from 69 percent in 2002. In most poor countries, satisfaction with family income is on the rise.

According to the survey, people in countries in which GDP per capita has risen markedly in recent years rate theirs lives and national conditions far more favourably compared to five years ago. This is particularly true in Latin America, Eastern Europe, China and India. This is a trend that those who support free market policies should remember – liberating economies do not only foster growth and development, but by doing so they also spread happiness. What was the last socialist reform to make you smile?

Negativity about the prospects for the next generation is commonplace. Fully 80 percent of the French believe that when their children grow up, they will be worse off than today. Substantial majorities in many other developed nations share this notion, although none are as pessimistic as the French. In China only 6 percent believe that the next generation will be worse off, whilst 86 believe that they will be better off. This optimism is widespread amongst many poor countries.

Looking at human history and the current rate of development, it is far more likely that the next generation will live longer and have substantial economic advantages compared to us. So why the pessimism in the West? Fear of environmental disaster is one plausible reason as to why westerners believe that their children will be worse off.

Lastly, the Pew survey found that in predominately Muslim nations the number saying that suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians are justifable in the defence of Islam is continuing to decline. In Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Lebanon, the proporiton of Muslims who view such attacks as being often or sometimes justified has declined by half or more over the past five years.

In 2002, 33 percent of the Muslims in Pakistan claimed that suicide bombings were often or sometimes justified, in 2007 only 9 percent made that claim. In Lebanon the corresponding figures have dropped from 74 to 34 percent. There is still some support for terrorism, as 70 percent in the Palestinian territories believe that suicide bombings against civilians can be often or sometimes justified (corresponding data does not exist for this in 2002). But the trend is pointing in the right direction.

Rising satisfaction with quality of life and family income in the developing countries, combined with less support for suicide bombings amongst the Muslim nations, are indeed important trends. And good news. Perhaps the latest global survey by Pew will inspire some optimism among the pessimists in the West.

Nima Sanandaji


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