How Do You Stay Hopeful?

We are living in times that can overwhelm even the sturdiest among us. Each day’s news seems increasingly hard to bear. As the months drag by it wears us down in different ways. Outrage and anguish can fray our bodies. Addressing too many issues can fracture our effectiveness. Cynicism or complacency can hide our hearts, even from ourselves.

I reached out to friends on Facebook and Twitter seeking to find what others are doing to hold themselves up.  My question:

Please tell me what you are doing to remain hopeful in these times. If you are doing something, anything, to help turn the tide toward ethics and common sense please share that too.

A welcome tide of hope rushed back at me. I found it interesting that nearly all of it had to do with nurturing — nurturing relationships, creativity, possibilities, balance, and compassion. Here are some of the hope-inducing insights friends shared with me.

Find balance

Strengthening myself with compassionate activities like gardening, yoga and reading books by great minds. Really trying to be a better listener without feeling the need to always respond. Trying my best to raise empathetic kids who in turn will carry the torch on their own.

I kind of feel like light shines twice as bright in so much darkness.   ~Tobias Whitaker

Almost every Monday morning since the inauguration a small group of us meet at a local coffee shop and write postcards to our legislators. We also make phone calls and send faxes. Being with like-minded people helps. This week I am spending time with a great group of women in a cottage at a lake, eating, drinking, discussing books and authors and recharging my batteries.   ~Betty Kramer

I’ve never done anything that fills me with more hope than raising my little boy. The equation seems so clear. I put in love, reasonable limits, and real time in the moment and he grows up curious and kind. I reach out to  make our apartment a gathering place for other mothers too. We have a lot of hope that our generation can make a difference.   ~Rosie

I have planted seeds and trees, and I’ve spent time with the littles in the family. I’m doing some stuff in the studio, making things I love. I’ve registered young people to vote, and stood on a street corner on a cold winter morning honoring the kids who are organizing for change. I walk and/or hike almost daily. I drink good coffee. I send wee gifties to folks I care about, and leave things in public places to be found by strangers.

I rarely read the news, knowing that there is a lot of tough stuff going on. I am selective in what I listen to on the radio. I just, as my English mother-in-law used to say, keep chunking along.   ~Debra Bures

I keep working on getting people to vote. Two new voters yesterday! They previously did not vote because they did not like any of the options, but now see their responsibility…  Also, I get out in nature, with grandchildren, garden, sing, throw pots (but not against the wall). I’m involved with an amazing herbal healing group and love the alternative focus. I joined and participate in the Crooked River Timebank and that is a strong community building, for Mama Earth and her people, positive fun thing to be part of.    ~Carolyn Rames

 

Build connections

I talk to the person checking out my groceries. I ask the guy panhandling at the corner how he’s doing every single day and wait to hear what he’s got to say. I sit down with the maintenance guy in my building for a beer if he comes by. Clicking in with people does me good. The more people ignore each other the worse they make it.     ~Elgin

I find hope (lots and lots of hope) in the work of a group called Better Angels – here’s why. While attending our first convention I enjoyed three days of stimulating conversation with folks who politically are polar opposites and yet, because of a common desire to depolarize our country, we approached each other with positive intent and listened to one another with love. The goal? To learn to listen to understand how people think and believe – period. Not to debate to win or change another person’s mind. Just listen with love to hear and understand.  It was inspiring to say the least and, a universally positive experience for those who attended. As a result, my husband and I as well as many others both left and right leaning are committed to being trained to facilitate the peaceful exchange of ideas. We need to depolarize our country and we know that we can.   ~Leslie Boomer

Hone down to what you can do

I am working on getting my backyard certified as a backyard habitat for the National Wildlife Federation. I am also working at a glacial pace on 7 personal goals. I am trying to control a small portion of the world and make it better.   ~Katherine Clark

I am raising money to provide legal representation for immigrant children separated from their parents.   ~Brett

I decided to focus any activist leanings I have this year towards getting people to vote. I joined the local League of Women Voters and am trying to help with their events when I can.   ~Kathy

I stay involved in my community….serving on the board of directors and being active in my local community theatre, serving as President of the Friends of the Library and volunteering for the county parks. Being the change I want to see in the world starts with my neighborhood, imo. And I am raising daughters who are following my example.   ~Lissa

Look for what’s good

Focus on the world around and closest to you, those you love and touch and see and hear in your everyday life. We live in a time when choosing to separate yourself from the noisy, chaotic, distractions in the world is more difficult than ever, but even more essential. Essential for your own individual well-being, but I believe critical to humanity.

…Focus on the good. I guarantee if you look carefully at the world within your sphere of influence, those close to you, you will find goodness, strength and hope. You will be able to contribute to that. You will, in a very real sense, help to create peace in this world. I believe we can all do that. And if we did, can you imagine the impact?   ~Cheryl

Amplify beauty and meaning

My job as a music programmer for Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor is a huge help — booking musicians, hosting the shows and just being alongside people as they take a weekly break from all the craziness around us is a positive high point in every week. In a similar vein, hosting our house concert series keeps me grounded in my home, neighborhood and local community and gives me yet another opportunity to serve musicians, friends and family–all of whom are creative, vibrant, caring people doing their bit, every day, to “get us all back to the garden” which is my aim and goal as well. I post poetry on FB and I’ve been doing a “poetry post card” project with a friend of mine–we write a poem a day—or try to–on a postcard, sometimes adding a bit of art or whimsy to the cards–and we pop them in the post to each other. This also necessitates a walk into town to the PO (our postal carriers often neglect to pick up mail so I take it directly to the post office instead) and the walk takes me into my neighborhood–I get to see people, say “Hi” and maybe stop for a chat–I get some exercise and clear my head. I’m committed to doing everything I can to keep the world around me sane, centered and peaceful so I try to be deliberate in my choices, to choose, always, “the things that make for peace.”

I do experience discouragement–I sometimes feel that I’m not doing enough but I know that what I am doing is true to who I am–to my temperament, gifts and abilities and part of my effort is tuned to encouraging others who don’t feel as though they quite fit into the “activist” personality that they are still needed and that their gifts–their poetry, essays, music, food, presence–is “enough” because the last thing we need is a lot of people feeling helpless or getting the idea that there’s only one, right way to be “active” in making the world a better place.   ~Michelle Wilbert

Art, art, art (which includes writing). All forms of creative play. NOT watching or reading (so much of) the news. Meditation/chant/quiet time. And I’m a big subscriber to this way of thinking, as Cinelle Barnes said, “Sometimes, I think, laughing is a form of resistance. There’s nothing more annoying for an oppressor than to see the oppressed thriving in the midst of struggle. Joy is resistance, and so is hope.”   ~Paula Lambert

Do work that makes a difference

What brings me hope is how uncommonly simple it is to make peace person-to-person. This is my daily practice. I work front office for a high volume tire company dealing with customers, reps, employees, whatnot all day long. I do what needs to be done and at the same time consciously choose to see the person I’m dealing with as a Child of God (or soul or stillpoint or whatever you want to call it). It doesn’t take a second longer to pay attention with my eyes AND my spirit.  This changes everything for the better, believe me.   ~name withheld

The interviews I do for The MOON almost always inspire me. This morning I spoke with Earth Guardian Xiuhtezcatl, who has been a vocal champion for the Earth since he was six. He’s also a hip-hop artist and published author. His new book is “We rise.” Thank God.     ~Leslee Goodman

I am working with a local school to create a racially inclusive and safe community as well as advocate for youth.   ~Malaka

I find my job as a family therapist incredibly meaningful. I work with people who are greatly impacted by the political and economic realities, but who are also very resilient. For their sake I am able to rise above apathy. The personal relationship I develop with struggling clients fuels me to take greater steps in advocacy. By walking with them, just a little bit, I learn about the network of social services that is available. It seems that this network is fragile and not enough, but I meet incredible unsung professionals (social workers, teachers, therapists) who are good stewards of resources. There is energy in numbers. Oh, and I also don’t work more than my agency job description calls for. I go home and enjoy people I love.   ~Jennifer Olin-Hitt

My job is poorly paid and gets little respect, but I bring my all to it. I’m an aide in the 3 to 4-year-old section in one of St. Louis daycare companies. These little people are learning to express themselves, validate emotion, share, care, and analyze everything around them. No price can be put on their enthusiasm and love. I don’t know why today little kids don’t matter (or the people who watch them), but this is the future. After work I go home knowing I did my best.  ~Tiff

I signed six children up for Summer Reading today. And I accepted a donation of five hundred books from a woman’s mother’s estate; they will be sold to support educational programs for Cleveland youth at The Reading Room CLE.

I try to do what I can, and not spend energy on things I can’t control. So when the news went out that ICE was operating a checkpoint at 150th and Lorain, I shared the information, hoping to help people avoid the intersection. I don’t know what to do about this technically legal but horrifying behavior. Do we go take pictures? Protest? Knock over the ICE truck? I don’t know. I don’t know. But instead of spending the next three hours grieving into Facebook, I put down my computer, went out in my garage, and boxed books for the Reading Room. After three hours, I was exhausted, sweaty, and dirty. But those three hours will help children learn to read. I feel like that’s better than weeping into my laptop, alone, for an evening.

One more thing: all that weird, oddball stuff I do? My art, my performance poetry, my quirky fashion choices? People ask me where I get the ideas for these hobbies, what motivates me to spend my time on this stuff. But those are coping skills. They build my strength so I can stay healthy and help others. Our culture and economy depends on people using entertainment and pleasure-seeking to cope with the everyday brokenness of our lives. It works better, for me to be kind and creative. It works better than mani-pedis and salt baths and chocolate cake.    ~L.S. Quinn 

Take care of yourself

I’m immersed in news all day long. When I get home from work I ignore my phone. I go for a run with music in my ears and space between, have some dinner with my partner, then let the body tell me what it wants to do.  ~Jaxxon:

Spend as much time outside in the sunshine as humanly possible. (I can weep for humanity and get vitamin D at the same time!)   ~Kris Bordessa

I find that I have to continually pull myself back into the present moment to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom – to instead see from a more level-headed perspective. I try to remember to recenter and refrain from letting my body be impacted. I take care of refreshing my body, which is so closely connected to where the mind goes, and I get out into nature to keep an even bigger perspective.   ~Lillian Jones

I am cooking at home more. I’m growing pots on my balcony with peppers, tomatoes, and beans. When I make something homemade my senses are busy and I don’t think about how bad everything is getting, you know?  ~Franco

I’ve quit watching TV. And I’ve ramped up showing kindness to strangers and every person I meet at the library. Also, sending unspoken blessings to people on the highway as I commute. Finally, I’m donating food and money to the Sandusky immigrant cause. Just trying to turn up the light.   ~Laurie

As a friend of mine always says, “Read more poetry, eat more chocolate!”   ~Virginia Douglas

What about you? How do you stay hopeful?

 

 

 

 

 

9 Amazing Reasons To Be Optimistic

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If you could scroll through history searching for an era where you’d like to spend a lifetime, what would attract you?

Probably peace and prosperity. Probably a time when the arts flourish and science is open to new wonders. Probably too, a time period when people behave morally, care for one another, and uphold higher ideals than selfishness.

Does it make a difference to your answer if you don’t get to choose where on Earth you’ll be born?  Into what class, gender, creed, and ability?

You’ll probably want to stay right here, right now.

Our 24 hour media attention on what’s terrifying and what’s superficial steers us away from the big picture.  That picture, looking at the wider view, is actually pretty heartening.

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1. War and global violence continue to decline.

Armed conflicts aren’t going up, they’re going down.

The world has seen a 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War era. Genocide is down 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished by 33 percent and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent. Even measuring from as little as 15 years ago, the number of armed conflicts has dropped from 44 to 28.

Why? Project Ploughshares credits peace building efforts.

Chances are, the reasons for peace are complex. Yet a stronger international resolve to focus on peace building and basic human rights is taking place. Imagine the far larger potential for enduring peace if we intentionally educate our children and ourselves in the proven methods of non-violence—-negotiation, mediation, reconciliation, even basic listening skills.

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2. Freedom is stretching across the planet.

By evaluating variables including civil liberties, democratic institutions, and independent media it’s possible to assess how free each nation in the world really is. Back in 1973, 29 percent of nations were deemed free, 25 percent partially free, and 46 percent not free.

In a little over 35 years, the number of nations ruled by authoritarian regimes dropped from 90 to 30. Countries around the world considered to be free increased by 50 percent while those not free had dropped by more than half.

Independence has a long way to go. And what we may not recognize as positive signs—protests, dissent, political upheaval—may very well be ordinary people speaking up for freedom.

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3. Affluence is on the increase.

A shifting focus away from war, conflict, and chaos means that countries are better able to meet the needs of their citizens. Those 151 countries deemed free or partly free account for 95 % of the world’s gross domestic production (GDP).

The number of people living in poverty has dropped by 500 million people, although most of those successes are in a few key countries.  Since 1975 the world’s poor have seen their incomes grow faster than the world’s wealthy, meaning economic equality is increasing.

Of course, we make a mistake when we confuse affluence with well-being. After certain (surprisingly minimal) levels of health and safety are reached, money doesn’t buy happiness.

Current global conditions of institutional breakup, financial chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which seem to be (slowly) leading to long-term beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the limitations of short-term fixes and relentless economic expansion. Hopefully we’re also waking up to the reality that we’re in this together—rich and poor, developed and developing nations, young and old, left and right. We see in our own lives that what’s important can’t be measured by dollars alone. Things like good health, supportive relationships and a vital ecosystem.

There are plenty of other ways to define affluence. A fascinating measure of wealth lies in a quick look at how many hours of labor it once took the average worker to pay for light.  In ancient Babylonia it took over 50 hours to pay for an hour of poor light from a sesame-oil lamp. At the start of the last century, it would have taken the average worker a thousand hours to earn the money to buy candles equaling the light of a single 100 watt bulb. Today’s high efficiency lighting costs us less than a second of work.

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4. Fewer people are hungry.

Hunger continues to drop although we have a long way to go. It’s staggering to realize that 925 million people are chronically hungry. But according to The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany, global food supplies increased 24 percent per capita in the last 40 years. In developing countries the food supply increased at an even greater rate, 38 percent more food per person. Since 1950, the real global price of food commodities has declined 75 percent.

No one should go hungry. The future of global food justice relies on efforts to restore and protect biodiversity, stop the spread of genetically modified crops, and assure water rights.

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5. Longevity is improving yet total population faces a downturn

Fulfilling the cherished hopes of their parents, more children around the world are born healthy. Mortality rates for those under five years of age have fallen by 60 percent since 1960.

Meanwhile, life expectancy has risen 21 years since the mid 1950’s.

This doesn’t mean the planet will be too crowded. Overall population will continue to rise for several more decades but we’re facing a major downturn. Already birth rates are near or below replacement rate in countries all over the world. Increased education and affluence tend to inspire women, no matter what country they live in, to invest their time and resources in fewer children. As Fred Pearce clearly explains in The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, our little Earth will likely reach a (painful) peak of 8 billion people around the year 2040, then the total number of human will begin to decline so rapidly that nations will struggle to keep their populations levels from slipping too low. They may create perks for becoming parents and incentives to attract immigrants.

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6. Health continues to improve.

Studies conducted by Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate and economic historian at the University of Chicago, show that in a few hundred years human biology has changed in startling ways. We are more resistant to ill health, more likely to recover when faced with disease and less likely to live with chronic disability. We are also smarter and live longer. Fogel calls this radical improvement “technophysio evolution.”

An interview quotes Fogel as saying, “The phenomenon is not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.”

Fogel doesn’t necessary attribute the changes to genetic shifts.  Improvements in medical care, nutrition, sanitation and working conditions may cause epigenetic changes. These are shifts in gene expression that can last through many generations without altering underlying DNA.

Information amassed by Fogel indicates that chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and lung ailments are occurring 10 to 25 years later in life than they did 100 or 200 years ago. Interestingly, well-being may be more strongly affected by conditions each individual faces in utero and during the first few years of life than previously suspected.

These remarkable health gains don’t diminish our current struggles with cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other serious health conditions on the increase. Despite the blessing of bodies more resilient and healthy than those of our ancestors of just 150 years ago we suffer the effects of environmental toxins and nutritionally inferior diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, we need to make the right choices to pass those benefits to our descendants.

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7. Literacy rates continue to improve.

Global adult literacy rates have shot up from 56 percent in 1950 to nearly 84 percent today, the highest ever.

Women’s rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularly East Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health and greater financial stability.

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8. Intelligence is on an upswing.

From generation to generation, we’re getting smarter. In fact, to accommodate continuously increasing intelligence the IQ test must be renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100). This is called the Flynn Effect.

Between 1932 and 1978, mean IQ scores in the U.S. rose 13.8 points. If your grandparent received IQ score results of 98 back in 1932 they’d have been deemed of average intelligence. That same grandparent, if administered today’s tests, would be considered to have a borderline mental disability by current scoring standards. IQ scores have risen even higher in some other countries. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.

Plenty of explanations have been proposed, but the increase can’t be definitively pinned on genetic improvements, improved nutrition, greater familiarity with testing or better schooling.

According to Cornell professor Stephen J. Ceci, the most direct gains are not in subjects that are taught (math, vocabulary) but are shown in parts of the test that seem unrelated to schooling (matrices, detecting similarities). In fact, test gains have been enormous in areas requiring the child to apply his or her own reasoning, such as arranging pictures to tell a story or putting shapes in a series. Although teaching children does return positive results, what a child learns through the natural stimulation of everyday life has a more profound effect. For example, a study to determine the effect of schooling on rural children in India found that the increase in overall intelligence from a year of age is twice the increase from that of attending a year of school.

IQ test scores don’t relate to what truly provides satisfaction in life. But the Flynn Effect is intriguing. Factors we can’t completely explain are giving us the intellectual capacities to deal with an ever more challenging world.

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9. Compassion is huge.

Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming that the abolitionist movement was the first major movement by human beings to advocate on behalf of others without seeking advantage for themselves or their particular social or political group.  Since that time, such efforts have grown with astonishing vigor.

There are now over a million organizations on the planet working for environmental stewardship, social justice, the preservation of indigenous cultures, and much more.  These groups don’t seek wider acclaim, they seek to make a difference for the greater good.

Humanity, which is clever and kind enough to bring about so much improvement for one another, is awakening to the vital importance of living more sustainably on Earth. Unless we pull another planet out of the galaxy’s pocket in the next decade or two, we have to stop using up our precious blue green Earth. It’s time to turn our ingenuity to living well within our means. Peacefully, wisely, and with optimism.

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Hand Globe image courtesy of HapciuMadam

Hummingbird image courtesy of PhapPuppy

Singing From the Inside Out

I can’t sneeze in a roomful of my friends without hitting a number of talented singer-songwriters who’d love to make a living through music. (Yes, a metaphorical sneeze.) Yet nearly every gifted artist any of us know has to ignore his or her gifts in order to make a living.

What cultural transformation might we see if those drawn to poetry, sculpting, composing, painting or other mediums of expression had some hope of living by their art?

Well here’s some hope.

A homeschooled guy who chose to help out with a worthwhile project now appears with John Mayer, Sheryl Crow and the Dave Matthews Band. His songs are heard on House and Ugly Betty. And more importantly, he sings about what matters to him.

See if the questions posed by this deceptively beautiful piece, “Ain’t No Reason,” resound long after the music is over.

Brett Dennen grew up in rural California, homeschooled along with his brother and sister. In an interview with Frank Goodman for Puremusic.com Dennen describes his mother’s homeschooling approach as “experiential.”  He says, “…so she rarely had a lesson plan or anything like that. She would give us books, and we would read the books. And we did a lot of gardening, and we did a lot of science education through being outside. We took camping trips with other kids who were homeschooled. And when we were out camping, we learned about rivers and forests and mountains and geology. We’d take books out camping with us, and we’d read about it, and we’d look for what we’d read about. Experiential education basically means instead of being in a classroom and being taught or told something, to actually go out and see it, and see how it works and learn through experiencing it instead of learning through being taught or told it. And that was really valuable to me.”

Dennen took the same approach when learning music. As he says in the same interview, “Because of the way I was homeschooled, I got into the idea of trying to learn how to do things my own way. And so when I started playing guitar, I taught myself. I took lessons for a while, but I lost interest in them because I think I just didn’t like going to my lessons, I didn’t like my teacher, I didn’t like what I was learning. So then I quit. And after I quit, then I really started to learn.”

He went to college planning to become a teacher. While a student, Dennen met Lara Mendel at a wilderness-safety class and the two of them wrote a humorous song about backwoods diarrhea for a class assignment. Mendel happened to be developing a powerful hands-on program for children, one that tackles intolerance and violence head on. She named it The Mosaic Project. Dennen wrote songs to reinforce the activities. Now his music and her project teach hundreds of California children about acceptance, friendship and peace in each session of The Mosaic Project.

The creative and independent spirit of Dennen’s homeschooling background hasn’t left him. Goodman’s interview opens with these comments. “He’s like a new kind of human being to me, this Brett Dennen. After spending time with him this week, I feel that way even stronger than after the positively confounding impression that his new CD, There’s So Much More, left on me. If he’d said that he was an alien, I could have swallowed that; it would even have made sense to me. Because I’m simply not accustomed to meeting and spending time with people that appear to be so incorruptible, so odd and yet so self-assured; so, uh, enlightened and inner-directed, if I might venture all that.”

I don’t know if Dennen’s life up to this point says more about homeschooling or about doing the work of one’s heart. I do know there’s no separating the two.

Going to Hope in a Handbasket


“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”             Arundhati Roy

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Fear sells. Blood and guts sell even better. What really grabs our attention? Out and out panic. That largely explains today’s so-called news channels, talk radio, actually much of commercial media. The worse it sounds, the greater audience share they grab and the more money they make. Trouble is, they also make up minds and harden hearts and plant misery where optimism could so easily flourish.

But they’re wrong.

Sure, it seems we’re in big trouble. Structures we count on to be stable are crumbling—finance, health care, education, consumption driven economies, us versus them mentalities, you name it.

Remember the parable of the mighty oak and thin reeds? The oak boasted of his immense girth and height, mocking the reeds all around him for their weaknesses. But the reeds could withstand wind, lightening and the weight of snow. The oak succumbed while the reeds survived, stronger than the oak in their ability to bend and stand again. Big institutions are fighting transparency, reform or annihilation with everything they’ve got, believing that strength means rigidity. Meanwhile a shift is happening on the grassroots level, as flexible and self-correcting as reeds in the wind.

Times of change are destabilizing and difficult, but ultimately valuable. After all, what’s broken, corrupt or simply no longer workable must be fully revealed before it’s healed or transformed into something much better.

Look more closely. Things are getting better all the time. In fact amazing evidence shows that we’ve long been on the path to health and harmony. Here are a few examples.

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We’re Smarter.

Intelligence continues to increase from generation to generation. In fact, to accommodate continuously increasing intelligence the IQ test must be renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100). This is called the Flynn Effect.

Between 1932 and 1978, mean IQ scores in the U.S. rose 13.8 points. If your grandparent received IQ score results of 98 back in 1932 they’d have been deemed of average intelligence. That same grandparent, if administered today’s tests, would be considered to have a borderline mental disability by current scoring standards. IQ scores have risen even higher in some other countries: 27 points in the UK between 1942 to 1992. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.

Many explanations have been proposed, but the increase can’t be definitively pinned on genetic improvements, improved nutrition, greater familiarity with testing or better schooling.

According to Cornell professor Stephen J. Ceci, the most direct gains are not in subjects that are taught (math, vocabulary) but are shown in parts of the test that seem unrelated to schooling (matrices, detecting similarities). In fact, test gains have been enormous in areas requiring the child to apply his or her own reasoning, such as arranging pictures to tell a story or putting shapes in a series. Although teaching children does return positive results, what a child learns through the natural stimulation of everyday life has a more profound effect. For example, a study to determine the effect of schooling on rural children in India found that the increase in overall intelligence from a year of age is twice the increase from that of attending a year of school.

IQ test scores don’t relate to what truly provides satisfaction in life. But the Flynn Effect is intriguing. Factors we can’t completely explain are giving us the intellectual capacities to deal with a ever more challenging world.

~

We’re Healthier.

Studies conducted by Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate and economic historian at the University of Chicago, show that in a few hundred years human biology has changed in startling ways. We are more resistant to ill health, more likely to recover when faced with disease and less likely to live with chronic disability. We are also smarter and live longer. Fogel calls this radical improvement “technophysio evolution.”

An interview in the University of Chicago Magazine quotes Fogel as saying, “The phenomenon is not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.”

Fogel doesn’t necessary attribute the changes to genetic shifts.  Improvements in medical care, nutrition, sanitation and working conditions may cause epigenetic changes.  These are shifts in gene expression that can last through many generations without altering underlying DNA.

Information amassed by Fogel indicates that chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and lung ailments are occurring 10 to 25 years later in life than they did 100 or 200 years ago. Interestingly, well-being may be more strongly affected by conditions each individual faces in utero and during the first few years of life than previously suspected.

Fogel’s most dramatic proof of technophysio evolution was found by comparing Civil War veterans to subsequent generations. Researchers examined health and longevity data of 45,000 Union Army veterans, including over 6,000 black soldiers. Military records revealed that young American men of that era commonly suffered debilitating health conditions. Approximately 65 percent of men from 18 to 25 years of age volunteered for the Union Army. But arthritis, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease and blindness disqualified a quarter of them. And the military of that era wasn’t choosy. Incontinence and blindness in one eye didn’t disqualify a recruit. Even the youngest men lived with chronic disabilities. Fully one-sixth of volunteers between 16 to 19 years of age were rejected for serious health conditions.

By the time Civil War vets passed the age of 65, 68 percent of them suffered from arthritis, 76 percent from heart disease and over 50 percent from back problems. World War II veterans at the same age, in contrast, counted among their ranks 48 percent as arthritis sufferers, 39 percent with heart disease and 30 percent with back problems.

These remarkable health gains don’t diminish our current struggles with cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other serious health conditions on the increase. Despite the blessing of bodies more resilient and healthy than those of our ancestors of just 150 years ago we suffer the effects of environmental toxins and nutritionally squalid diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, it seems we must expand our awareness to make positive changes here and now. That way our choices continue to benefit our descendants.

~

We’re More Peaceful.

We function best through cooperation and harmony. Even our body systems are in greatest sync when we are peaceful, according to studies at the Heart Math Institute. It may be taking us quite a while, as a species, to get accustomed to living in larger settled groups but it seems we’ve come a long way in the last few centuries.

And peace is how our species has come this far, despite what history tells us. According to anthropologist Douglas Fry, evidence shows that for 98 percent of human existence on earth we lived in small nomadic bands that thrived precisely because warfare was avoided. He presents compelling proof in his book, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace
along with the message that human beings have highly developed capacities to seek and maintain peace.

Psychologist Steven Pinker points out in an essay titled “A History of Violence” that public cat burnings were a popular form of entertainment in the sixteenth century.  Although we pay more attention to atrocities now than ever before, the horrors of slavery, genocide, barbaric punishment and vigilante justice were accepted as commonplace a little more than a century ago.

Empathy for people of another race or class? Not a typical attribute even a few generations ago. Pinker notes, “Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler.”

As Pinker cites specific data, the good news gets better. For example, the homicide rate has declined from a rampant 24 murders per 100,000 Englishmen in the 14th century to 0.6 per 100,000 in the 1960’s (5.4 per 100,000 in the U.S. in 2008).

No matter what the angle, the view is good when we look at more recent U.S. history through this lens as well. Despite what ranting pundits and blaring news promos may indicate, crime rates have been steadily dropping per capita since the 1970’s.  Some analysts say by as much as 50 percent in 15 years.  Despite staggering economic losses, crime has continued to decline recently.

The ecumenical organization Project Ploughshares reports,  “Peacebuilding efforts do work. Although one conflict is too many for those being killed and wounded, there has been a significant decrease in the number and intensity of armed conflicts over the past 10 years.”

We’ve come a long way without direct efforts to educate each person in the ways of negotiation, mediation, intervention, reconciliation, heck, even listening skills. Imagine turning our attention toward cooperation and mutual respect. Surely acknowledging the human tendency toward peace welcomes greater possibilities for harmony in the years to come.

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We Care.

Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World
that the abolitionist movement was the first major movement by human beings to advocate on behalf of others without seeking advantage for themselves or their particular social or political group.  Since that time, such efforts have grown with astonishing vigor.

There are now over a million organizations on the planet working for environmental stewardship, social justice, the preservation of indigenous cultures, and much more.  These groups don’t seek wider acclaim, they seek to make a difference for the greater good.

Artist Chris Jordan has made a mandala of the names of those million-plus organizations.  His work is inspiring—-make sure you look at the images up close as well as the whole picture.

It’s time to turn our attention away from doom-shrieking media. While it’s valuable to be informed, such knowledge is useful only to the extent that it motivates us to turn more consciously in a positive direction.

A heavy heart, or worse, a hardened heart, makes it nearly impossible to raise a child or plant a garden or grow a benevolent future.

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