Is the World Getting Better or Worse? Data on Lifestyle & Health

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Enlightenment Now" by Steven Pinker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Is the world getting better or worse? Have lifestyles around the world improved over time? What do the data on disease, hunger, and mortality indicate?

Steven Pinker argues that the world is getting better for humans everywhere. He looks at data in several categories, including lifestyle and health. According to Pinker, we see improvements in both of these areas.

Keep reading to learn why Pinker is optimistic.

The World Is Getting Better

Is the world getting better or worse? Pinker believes that it’s getting better, based on the data. Let’s look at the statistics he gathered on lifestyle and health to make his point.


Overall, Pinker argues that people have a much better work/leisure balance than they did in the past. He says that modernization has made this possible through the invention of electricity and time-saving appliances. Modern technology means we have to work fewer hours to support our households, and we spend far fewer hours on basic household chores, allowing us more free time to pursue pleasurable activities, like travel. Some of the statistics presented to support Pinker’s argument are:

  • Work hours: Between 1870-2000, in Western Europe and the U.S., weekly work hours decreased from between 60-70 hours/week to around 40 hours/week.
  • Retirement: In the U.S., the percentage of people over 65 who were still working decreased from almost 80% in 1880 to around 20% in 2000. 
  • Housework: In the U.S., hours spent on housework decreased from around 60 hours/week in 1890 to around 15 hours/week in 2015. Pinker attributes much of this to the availability of electrical appliances. He shows that the percentage of households with electricity, running water, a microwave, stove, dishwasher, and washing machine has risen from almost none in the early 1900s to almost everyone in 2000.
  • Household expenditure: In 1925 around 60% of U.S. household income was spent on basic necessities, as compared to around 35% in 2015.
  • Leisure time: Leisure time in the U.S. has risen more for men than women, though it has increased for both. In 1965, men spent about 32 hours/week in leisure, compared to 41 hours/week in 2015. For women, the number of leisure hours rose from around 30 to 35 hours/week. 
  • Travel: The cost of air travel has declined sharply between 1975 and the present. Pinker points out that this, along with extra money and leisure time, allows many more people to travel for pleasure. Globally, international tourism has risen from around half a billion travelers in 1995 to around 1.2 billion in 2015.
How Do We Spend Our Leisure Time?

While we may have more leisure time than our immediate forebears, the earliest humans may have had even more. According to Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, people in early foraging societies likely spent significantly fewer hours per week working than the average person in the modern world. Anthropological studies comparing foraging to farming societies generally find the same: Foragers spend less time working and more time engaging in leisure activities. 

Regardless of the amount of leisure time, though, it’s how we spend it that determines how it affects our lives. And technology has changed the way we spend our leisure time. According to the American Time Use Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends more than 60% (over three hours) of their daily leisure time watching TV or on the computer. Scientific studies have documented a number of negative effects of technology use on our mental and physical health. Psychologists offer advice for using your leisure time more effectively: Engage in activities that challenge you, improve yourself and your relationships, or achieve a state of creative “flow.” 

Health and Nutrition

Next, we’ll look at a factor that Pinker argues is universally understood as a measure of progress: health. On this topic, he looks at access to food and nutrition, how long people live, and how medical advancements have eradicated many diseases that once plagued humanity. Pinker cites the following evidence that humans are living longer, healthier lives around the globe:  

  • Life expectancy: Worldwide average life expectancy was only around 30 years in the 1700s, whereas today it’s around 70. Of course, this doesn’t mean an average person only lived to age 30 in the 1700s. It means many babies and children died, bringing the overall average lifespan down. 
  • Child mortality: Defined as death before age 5, child mortality in the 1700s was around 30-35%. Now it’s only around 4% globally. 
  • Disease: Modern medical science has eradicated or nearly eradicated many infectious diseases that once killed many. Some examples are smallpox, parasites, polio, cholera, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Hunger: Pinker argues that the developed world has so much food that we have an obesity epidemic, rather than anyone starving, like people used to. And he says the developing world is vastly improving. He points out that China, India, and Africa (as a whole) now have populations that average over 2,400 calories per person per day.
  • Malnourishment: From 1970-2015, rates of undernourishment in all of the “developing world” have declined.
  • Food shortage: In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted famines would get worse because the population grows exponentially and food production couldn’t keep up with it. He argued that efforts to feed the starving would only make the problem worse because they’d just survive to have more children. He was wrong. Pinker shows that when people become better educated and wealthier, they have fewer children. And projections show that by the end of the 21st century, worldwide illiteracy will effectively be zero. So he argues that eradicating poverty and increasing education is essential for the overall good of humanity, and they will also naturally solve the problem of overpopulation and food shortage. 
The Benefits of Progress are Unevenly Distributed

Pinker readily acknowledges that none of the above benefits are equally distributed around the world. 

Much of this is the legacy of colonialism. Countries that were previously subject to European colonization, especially those in Africa, have some of the poorest outcomes on all of the above measures. The countries with the lowest life expectancy rates and poorest health are all African countries. Child mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa is 14 times higher than it is in Europe and North America. The countries with the greatest food crises are all in Africa and the Middle East.

In Development as Freedom, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen examines the connection between food production and population, and his conclusions align with Pinker’s. Sen argues that despite the growing global population, there is no overall food shortage in the world. He says enough food is produced to feed everyone; it’s just not distributed well.

So, the biggest challenge for the future will be addressing these inequalities in how the benefits of progress are distributed. 
Is the World Getting Better or Worse? Data on Lifestyle & Health

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steven Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Enlightenment Now summary:

  • How the world is actually getting better, not worse, over time
  • Why people think the world is worse off than it is
  • What Enlightenment values are and where they come from

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.