Count your blessings, we’re told, but it’s just not in our nature. We’d rather count our problems. Our species survived by reacting instantly to threats, and the ancient humans who stopped to smell the roses made easier targets for predators.
Today, the predators are mostly gone, but we’re still so primed to pay attention to bad news that we tend to ignore what’s going well. As soon as we solve one problem, we take the progress for granted and find a new cause for alarm. Every now and again it doesn’t hurt to take stock of just how good we have it. Start counting:
1. Free time
As much as we complain about being busy, the typical American has more free time than ever-more than five hours per day, according to time surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau and researchers at the University of Maryland and Penn State. That’s a gain of nearly an hour since 1965 and a gain of about four hours since the 19th century. In Victorian England, when life expectancy was only about 50, workers put in 60-hour weeks, from age ten until they died.
If you feel too busy, it’s probably only because you’re doing so many other things than work. Over the course of a lifetime, you typically spend no more than 20 percent of your waking hours on the job, and experts say there’ll be even more free time in the future as life expectancy keeps increasing and work hours keep shrinking. By 2050 in the industrialized world, others project, the average workweek will be just 27 hours.
Wars and terrorist attacks will always make headlines, but it’s remarkable how many of the world’s 6.7 billion people now live in peace. In recent decades, despite the growth in population, the number of war casualties around the world has declined, according to the Human Security Report Project from Canada’s Simon Fraser University. And despite a new fear of terrorism following 9/11, terrorist casualties have been declining in recent years.
In some earlier generations, a quarter of the male population died violent deaths. Over the past century, even counting the world wars, a person’s chance of dying from war or violent civil strife was less than 2 percent, according to John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State University. That means that the scourge of war is now comparable to the statistical risk of driving a car in the United States.
3. A roomier American dream
While some people are struggling to keep their homes, the vast majority of Americans still have plenty to be thankful for when they walk through the front door. In 1950 the typical new American house had one floor with 1,000 square feet, two bedrooms, and one bathroom-and even that bungalow was beyond many people’s means. Nearly half of Americans didn’t own their homes, and more than a third of homes lacked complete plumbing facilities.
Today, more than two thirds of Americans own their homes, and the typical new house has two floors, at least three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and more than 2,200 square feet of space for the family.
4. The reader’s revolution
In 1970 barely half the people in the world were literate, and many of them could afford only a few books. Middle-class people needed installment plans to afford an encyclopedia. Local libraries offered a limited selection of books; new titles went on sale in bookstores but soon disappeared unless they were bestsellers.
Today, more than 80 percent of the world’s people can read, and 22 percent have access to the greatest library in history. The Web provides classic books and reference works like Wikipedia free of charge, and the online network of booksellers means that no book ever really goes out of print. Whatever it is, old or new, someone somewhere will sell it to you, often at a bargain price.