365 Reasons Why Today Is the Best Time to Be Alive

Illustration by Michael Glenwood Gibbs

April 2020 — “Life is hard, right?” states David Niven, PhD, in his newest book, Up! A Pragmatic Look at the Direction of Life pointing to insufficient health care coverage, a weakened economy, and a fragile environment.

He quickly counters: “Wrong! The reality is that most people would be hard-pressed to find even one example of how things are better today than they were yesterday.” What else does the author of The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People have to tell us? 

“The fact is that many people actually live twice as long today as our great grandparents did,” Niven explains. “We think our culture is in decline, but worldwide IQ scores are higher today than ever before. We think life keeps getting harder, but the percentage of people who feel happy is growing every year.”

But Up! is not simply a call for a sunnier outlook, Niven insists. “It’s an answer to doubts and fears and to those who see only what’s wrong or broken.”

Making the Case

“When I was a college student, a professor of mine was fond of sharing a story from his college days several decades earlier,” Niven shares. “He was taking an introductory course on social trends, and it was the first day of class. His professor entered the room and immediately began explaining what was wrong with society.

“It was a long list. Almost 90 minutes later, just before the class was due to end, the professor paused to take a breath and asked whether there were any questions. Most of the students were numb from all the gloomy talk. But one young man raised his hand and asked, in all seriousness, ‘But professor, is there no hope?’”

Niven knows there’s more than hope. “There’s proof. There are facts. Life is getting better. It’s time to look up!” Following are four of our favorite passages from David Niven’s 365 Ways Today Is the Best Time to Be Alive.

People Really Do Care

Consider Wesley Autrey, dubbed the “Subway Superman,” in 2007 when he saved Cameron Hollopeter, a 20-year-old film student who had suffered a seizure and fallen onto the New York City subway tracks.

“Wesley jumped down and tried to help the man up, but a 370-ton train was barreling toward them,” Niven writes. “He held Hollopeter down as low as he could and lay motionless, just inches from the deadly electrified third rail that powers subway trains. Miraculously, the two men watched it roll over them, and they emerged unhurt.”

Wesley said later, “In a big city, people sometimes think they’re all alone. But I’ve seen it. People have got your back.”

Consider this:

    • Wesley Autrey and more than 9,000 others have been awarded the Carnegie Medal, since 1904, which recognizes acts of extraordinary courage and selflessness.
    • In a survey asking people whether they respected and trusted people from a long list of professions, the top three most admired were nurses, doctors, and paramedics.

We’re Getting Smarter

“There’s a near universal concern that society is being dumbed-down, that schools are failing, that entertainment appeals to the least common denominator, and yet people around the world are demonstrably better problem-solvers than they were 100 years ago,” explains philosophy professor James Flynn of New Zealand’s University of Otago.

Why? “Smaller families mean more attention to our children,” he says. “We have more leisure time and more energy, which allow us more opportunities to think about subjects that interest us and to take on cognitively demanding pursuits. In any case, we’re improving our on-the-spot problem-solving skills over time, whether we mean to or not.”

Consider this:

    • Worldwide, IQ scores rose 15 points since the 1930s, according to a report in American Scientist
    • In the US, IQ scores are up 24 points since the early 1900s, with gains accelerating in the 1990s.

Things Are Cheaper Than You Think

“Virtually everything costs more today than it did when you were a child,” Niven knows. “But our sense that our economic grip is slipping by the day is fueled by skewed perceptions.”

In fact: Postage stamps cost $0.06 in 1851. But factor in how much people earned back then, and if you hold income levels constant, that stamp would cost the equivalent of $1.50 today.

“You would think that our personal economic confidence (and, likewise, fears) would be a pretty straightforward reflection of the money in our pockets and the security of our jobs. But the Federal Reserve Bank did a study that showed bad economic news has more influence on our economic outlook than our own economic well-being.”

Behavioral economist Michael Crane explains why: “We spend most of our lives looking for bad news. If we can’t find evidence of it on our own, we’ll listen for somebody else’s bad news. But you’re better off today than you think. At least you will be if you don’t spend your time convincing yourself that you’re not.”

Consider this:

    • George Washington’s salary was $25,000, a fraction of the $400,000 that the president of the United States is paid today. But adjusted for inflation, President Washington made 44 percent more than President Obama is paid in 2012.
    • Also adjusted for inflation, the average price of a car is actually about the same today as it was 100 years ago—$941 in 1912 versus $16,075 in 2012.

Emotional Intelligence Rules

“Talent is no longer thought of as being reflected in just one particular quality,” Niven writes. “Experts have outlined several core ability areas, including emotional intelligence (called EQ), because we now recognize that great success in life is the product of not one but many different types of core skills. Recognizing the importance of distinct abilities helps us to understand the capabilities of others and ourselves.”

That’s reflected in research by Susan Rittscher, who runs the Rhode Island think tank, the Center for Women & Enterprise. One trait she sees in women who have reached the top is that they tend to have superior EQ.

“It means they understand people’s needs,” Rittscher says, noting that when faced with workplace changes and cutbacks, leaders with high EQ soften the blow by dealing with people openly and soliciting their input. And when faced with the need to increase or improve production, they tend to be collaborative and less hierarchical. “You can go pretty far in a leadership role by showing people that you care, and that your decisions are not ill-considered whims.”

Consider this:

    • Psychological researchers have found that EQ is a better predictor of workplace success and leadership ability than IQ scores. Read more.
    • A Harvard University study on public schools using the multiple intelligences approach to design lessons found that students were highly engaged and produced higher quality work, and that the approach helped teachers learn more from each other. Click here for more.

Don’t stop here! If you want to read more of Niven’s 365 uplifting tips, click here to buy the book.

About David Niven

David Niven, PhD, is the author of the popular “100 Simple Secrets” series, which has been translated into 30 languages. As a social scientist, his work makes the case that a more satisfying life can be had with small changes in our actions and attitudes. He has taught at Ohio State University and Florida Atlantic University.

Niven’s books unlock scientific research and present it in a way anyone can understand and use in their lives today. With more than 1 million copies sold in the United States, and translations available in 30 languages around the globe, “100 Simple Secrets” has helped bring equal measures of science and inspiration into countless lives. Click here to learn more.