Psychological Well-being and Societal Progress

Ideas and Data

Some people think that history, or at least history since the enlightenment, can be characterized as a process of consistent long run improvement even if there have been occasional bumps on the road. This is sometimes called a Whig view of history and is probably most famously championed today by Steven Pinker.

Pinker and people like him often point to massive improvements in economic and technological conditions to justify this view. They often share charts showing national trends like the following:

Pinker - Appliances

Pinker (2019)

Pinker - Extreme Poverty

Pinker (2019)

They also sometimes talk about how Western societies have greatly expanded the legal rights enjoyed by various minority groups and have adopted generally egalitarian social norms in a politically democratic context.

Democracy Over Time

Desiliver (2019)

There are many problems with this narrative. The one I’m going to focus on in this post concerns psychological well being. Many of the proposed improvements of the last century or so…

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