If you're looking for some Christmas cheer, avoid the latest meme sweeping the internet, for 2016 was apparently the worst year ever. Perhaps the singer James Blunt best encapsulated the gloomy mood on Twitter: “If you thought 2016 was bad – I’m releasing an album in 2017.”
Blunt aside, there’s much wrong with this pessimism.
Most obviously it’s historically myopic. One expert told The Atlantic that the worst year ever was actually 65.5m years ago, when an asteroid wiped out 75 per cent of life on earth. In 1916, hundreds of thousands were being butchered on the killing fields of Flanders. Just a few years ago, the world’s major economies were mired in recession.
According to Johan Norberg, whose book Progress sets out countless reasons to be cheerful about where we are and where we’re going, “poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any time in human history”.
There are of course reasons to regret 2016, the scenes this week in Aleppo chief among them. Arguably, the trend towards a less violent world has gone into reverse, particularly in developing countries. But the Twitter miserabilists aren’t really complaining about war or terrorism. For them, it’s Brexit and Donald Trump that have ruined their festive mood.
They should reassess. If they’re actually worried about the loss of some of the positives associated with EU membership – like free movement across Europe – rather than just sore losers, they should remember that we didn’t leave the European Union in 2016 and there’s everything to play for in terms of shaping the final terms of Brexit. Trump has serious faults, but give him a chance to take office before you write him off as the end of the world.
The real problem is that we have a tendency to over-emphasise life’s negatives, particularly when they seem to be big turning points, while overlooking all the incremental changes that constantly improve our lives, from medicine to technology. Like an iceberg, by far the most significant changes are happening beneath the surface of the water.