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So, is the glass half empty or half full? I’m trying a new answer.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a half-empty guy. Having grown up in those dark “duck and cover” 1950s when the cold war seemed to threaten us all with nuclear annihilation, pessimism came naturally. As a young boy I followed news of the Korean stalemate, followed by the Vietnam debacle — not exactly wars that rewarded optimists.

I led a life of low-level fears that made my dark outlook fit reality. I was a catastrophist and pessimist, expecting the worst and usually finding it. I tried to solve problems, but there were too many. Despair struck often.

My wife of over two decades was blessed with a half-full outlook and therefore challenged my bleakness, but never for long. Humor and music probably saved me from sinking into a life of misery.

Comes now Steven Pinker with “Enlightenment Now,” a well-researched and data-driven book that’s impossible to dismiss. It’s a full-throated shout-out for optimism that has given me pause.

Not the cock-eyed optimism of dreamers, but a conditional and cautious optimism based on mountains of evidence that shows how everything has gotten better.

I might have to try the unthinkable and change my mind. Horrors.

At first, I roundly objected to Pinker’s idea mankind is better off in every way than it was during my growing years. Notwithstanding pessimism, I at least appreciated a time before military weapons were available to children, when white faces and voices ruled radio, television and the movies. It all felt familiar and safe.

This was back when a presidential candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable for his divorces alone, not to mention his endless and obvious character flaws.

Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end.

Pinker’s point, which he began developing in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is those good old days were pretty terrible for almost everyone. Income was meager, women and minorities were ignored or oppressed, two world wars had killed millions, famine, torture, disease and cruel and inhuman treatment were the norm. Even IQs were lower, according to Pinker, and he marshals charts, graphs and data for every point.

In 2016, President Obama asserted, “If you had to choose blindly what moment to be born, you’d choose now.” Probably true, since modern medicine saves millions, as does better nutrition, better education, less violence and so on.

Pinker cautions none of the worldwide improvements to human life happened automatically. They required science, critical thinking, mass movements, motivation to solve problems and large-scale financing. Good will and optimism alone won’t change anything. No complacency allowed.

So carry on, research scientists, engineers, teachers, problem-solving entrepreneurs, optimistic thinkers. You’ve succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, Pinker insists, and I’m inclined now to agree.

Pessimists, is the glass half full after all? Read Pinker and maybe give optimism a chance.

Scott Cawelti is an emeritus professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect those of the University of Northern Iowa.


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