Are Covid times really all that bad? Was 2020 the absolute worst year to be alive? Why is everyone freaking out about wearing masks?
Comparing this moment to other points on the human timeline, COVID-19 is a cakewalk. Harvard professor and historian Michael McCormick recently made the case that the toughest year to be alive would have been almost 1500 years ago, in 536 AD. That’s when a volcanic eruption in Iceland blotted out the sun and kicked off the coldest decade in thousands of years. Famine, plague and the fall of the Roman Empire followed. So, just a smidge worse than having to put a tiny piece of cloth over your nose and mouth.
In fact, out here in the west at least, the 2020s are downright splendiferous… with our historically high quality of life, low crime, advanced healthcare, easy access to food and clean water, and relatively low-casualty wars. We’re living longer, getting smarter, and, compared to the industrial age, we’re working reasonable hours (unless you work at a startup). We’re more likely to be killed by a Black Friday stampede than a terrorist attack. So why all the crazy-making? Shouldn’t we be thanking our lucky stars instead of wringing our hands? It’s a wonderful time to be alive, no?
Why are we so anxious?
Anxiety is anticipatory fear – fear about what will happen in the future. In other words, how awesome life feels right now matters far less than what you think might happen later. And we’re drinking from a firehose of worrisome information about what might happen later. In 536 AD, they didn’t have that firehose (or running water). But we have (cue the trumpets) the Internet(!), which is a valuable source of terrible news like:
- Human consumption might make this planet unlivable (true, by the way)
- Natural disasters are increasing and may yet threaten your home, family and ability to provide for your family.
- North Korea might launch a nuclear missile at us.
- Is the subway more dangerous? Data is mixed, but some riders are scared (this is a real NYT headline...WTF?)
- We may eventually have another civil war.
- A virus just killed almost 600,000 Americans and could be coming for you next.
- Your kids may suffer permanent mental scars from the pandemic lockdown.
- The government might take your guns.
- Democrats are turning America into a socialist country.
For the most part, these things haven’t happened. And yes, we should have a healthy concern about some of these issues (climate change in particular). But we spend far too many of our waking hours fixated on vaguely plausible catastrophes. Even with our big brains, it’s too much to process for a species that’s only had daily newspapers for 0.165% of our earthly existence. Now we’re consuming 100,000 words a day, and much of it is freaking us the fuck out.
Bad news for people who like good news
The onslaught of info-horror, combined with the agenda of those publishing it (more clicks = more better) means that our sense of what’s happening around us, our very reality, is constantly being disrupted and challenged in ways that are designed to upset us.
Take Twitter for example – basically a collective primal scream set to death metal music. Facebook is the same horrifying parade but with sprinkles of puppies and baby showers. Where’s the good news? Where are all of the wonderful solutions? As author Mark Manson puts it, “We’re too aware of all that is awful in the world.” The corollary is also true: we’re ignorant of all that is wonderful in the world.
If you think about information as something that feeds you intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, then our everyday diet of doom, gloom and OMFG is like living on Popeyes Cookie Dough Chicken Tenders and Mountain Dew Sweet Lightning. Barf.
Most of us prefer the bad news
Truth is, we’re completely hooked on this unhealthy balance of information. We actually favor the cortisol-producing info over the oxytocin-producing info (oxytocin is the feel-good hormone). This is due to a cognitive bias inherent in humans called “negativity bias.” Even when positive and negative events are of equal magnitude, we still perceive the negative event as being more potent. Some people get so excited by the sensations of being anxious that they become addicted to it.
Let’s take the January 6 capital attack for example. Constantly in the news, it was a terrible event that calls into question the future survival of our democracy. Profoundly troubling, yes, but also mesmerizing. How is this drama going to unfold? Will we find a web of lies and guilty GOP congresspeople? Will our democracy eventually collapse? This story has a far more powerful hold on our attention than the one about exciting new technologies that could end global warming – a direct, tangible threat to our existence. The anxiety it produces is a rush. Sort of like meth. Yet the danger to us that may arise from the violent overthrow of our government is still very conceptual, vague and distant.
There’s an evolutionary reason for negativity bias. Historically, those more attuned to danger were more likely to survive and hand down those anxiety-producing genes. But now this evolutionary advantage seems counterproductive. Not only is it making us miserable, it’s kind of, well, killing us.