From the Dean: Here comes the sun

With the arrival of the autumn, it is easy to fall into a slump.

Shorter days, darker evenings and the daily grind after the summer holidays – there are plenty of excuses to feel gloomy. Seasonal dips in one’s mood are understandable and entirely forgivable. But in the long run, for your wellbeing, research shows it pays to be an optimist. Positive thinkers live longer and better lives.

Despite the general pessimism of the media and many academics, things are getting better. There are many challenges society faces – high levels of debt, unemployment, worsening demographics, poor infrastructure, inequality and so forth. However, each generation has been about a third better off than its predecessor, and there are no fundamental reasons why this should not continue.

In his book The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge Matt Ridley argues that the key ingredient of higher living standards is innovation and that this is an emergent nature of human population, an will thus always be with us.  Most industrial discoveries have not been pioneered by a few isolated visionaries. Instead, progress has been driven by vast numbers of citizens, creating and selling thousands incremental improvements. Ridley argues that the growth of technology, including the health revolution, the quadrupling of farm yields, the computer and the internet, the mobile phone revolution, and the rise of Asia, is an emergent phenomenon.

Many other aspects of life are also improving. Crime rates are falling, and the life expectancy in wealthier nations has increased by six years during the past 25 years. But what about the environment? Overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, climate change and depletion of natural resources are serious issues, but should not entitle us to apocalyptic visions.  Responsible technology and free enterprise can solve mankind’s problems.

Perhaps mankind developed a capacity to imagine terrible outcomes as an insurance policy to avoid disasters. But constant fear of catastrophes is impractical and distorts our judgment. The world is full of opportunities and its resources are abundant. Improvements take place incrementally and rarely catch headlines in the media. By contrast, calamities and crises capture our attentionWe should focus on the matters under our own control and on the many possibilities that lie ahead. Throughout history, bold pioneers have been exalted, while the doomsayers have been forgotten. So there are many reasons for feeling optimistic.

Risto Nieminen
Dean, School of Science

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