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It Gets Better?
He stood alone in the room, the last words of his speech cut off by the crash of a neglected door swinging shut on the lecture hall. “It’s getting better,” he finished in quiet defeat. Doctor Larry M. Northrup hadn’t expected his lecture to be popular, or even well received. He knew that his thesis flew in the face of what everyone expected, but still he presented it. The original paper had passed peer review – not without significant rebuttal and critique – so Dr. Northrup had submitted it to the World Association of Journalists and Broadcasters for their annual conference. Not only was he surprised to be accepted, but thrilled to be given a chance to deliver the keynote address. In the months leading up to the conference Dr. Northrup went over every detail of the presentation. He contracted professional slide designers to give him the best visuals possible – he used the same people that produced slides for Steve Jobs and Al Gore. He checked and rechecked his peer-reviewed data, searching for any flaw. He could find none. It was a beautiful, inspiring, reasonable, uplifting presentation and he would deliver it to the very people who needed to hear it most. He decided to start with the big picture and then move to the specifics. “Today in history,” Northrup began his lecture, “is the safest time in the history of the world. There is less disease, famine, hunger, and war than any other point in human history.” The audience shifted in their seats and looked like bored high school freshmen hoping to avoid homework over a long weekend. Dr. Northrup felt the sweat start to form on his upper lip and between his shoulder blades. But he continued, “By every measurable, objective statistic the world is better today than it was five years ago and far better than it was even twenty years ago. You can see here that murder rates have dropped considerably. Violent crime is down. Drug abuse is down. Violence against women is down. “Or look here,” he switched slides to show a graph with lines climbing every higher, “education is improving, life expectancy is increasing, quality of life is up, income is up—“ An interruption came from a particularly dour-faced man in a gray suit, “What’s that line going down?” “Ah, yes, I’m glad you pointed that out,” Northrup adjusted his glasses and clicked to the next slide, “Here you can see the one positive indicator that has been consistently going down.” The label on the slide read: Perceived Happiness. “So people aren’t happy? What else is new?” The man said with the self-laughter of a person used to being followed in his amusement. The group around him chuckled with him. “It’s not just that people are less happy,” Northrup warmed to his point, “It’s that they’re less happy in direct opposition to every measurable reason – except one. Every negative statistic has been declining – even in the third-world, even in war-torn countries, even under oppressive regimes – around the world things have been constantly improving but—“ “You said there was one statistic,” this time the interruption came from a woman in the front row wearing a smart pantsuit with hair pulled back into a fastidious bun. “Yes, I did,” Northrup clicked to the next slide and heard a groan from the crowd. The label read: Average Time Spent Consuming News Media. The line didn’t just rise, it soared. “As you can see the one aberrant statistic that might correlate with the—“ Shouts erupted from the audience. “You think this is our fault?” “Who do you think you are?” “You fabricated that.” “Get off the stage!” A roaring din swallowed the more offensive details of the crowd’s displeasure. Dr. Northrup stood and waited. He had taught at a university for long enough to know how to handle an agitated, crowded lecture hall. His stoicism bought their silence. “The correlation is as clear as anything that I’ve seen. You are the problem with the world today,” he looked at the broadcasters, editors, CEOs, writers, marketers, and webmasters of the top media outlets for the world as he said those words. The first to leave was the gray-suited man followed by his lackeys. “But look here,” Northrup switched to another slide, “It doesn’t have to be like that. You can make a difference.” The slide showed how consuming less negative news correlated with greater levels of perceived happiness. “You can change and help.” The woman with the bun nearly drove her heels through the tile as she stomped out of the room. Others flooded to follow her. “Just focus less on the negative,” the doctor said, “focus on how things are improving. You’ll—“ “We’ll get killed in the ratings,” a younger man with thick, black-rimmed glasses and a close cropped beard scoffed. “Yes,” Northrup clicked forward several slides, “you can see here that ratings would drop – significantly at first, but if everyone makes the switch together they will—“ Laughter from the few remaining audience members cut him off. “But the world isn’t a terrible place?” Dr. Northrup was completely off-script now. He stared into the eyes of the powers that controlled news media around the globe and pleaded with them, tears standing in his eyes, “The world is full of beauty and hope. Every day there’s more joy, more reason to smile, better lives, fewer deaths. The world as you’ve been presenting it is bleak, dark, hopeless, and troubled.” All but one left. He stood toward the back, by the door listening until Dr. Northup finished. His eyes were hollow, haunted, and lost. Northrup continued, “If every voice speaks doom, it will become our future. If hopelessness is forced upon us, it will consume us. Don’t you see,” he pleaded with his audience of one, “that’s how our brains work, they reinforce what we see so that we expect to see more of it. It’s just like pornography or drug addiction – people’s brains are addicted to the negativity, so they seek it out. But if they can’t get a bigger and bigger fix each time it won’t be enough to satisfy their brains. The world isn’t going to hell, it’s not a burning heap of slag, it’s not falling apart—“ The last man dropped his eyes, turned with slumped shoulders, and walked out of the lecture hall leaving the door to crash shut behind him.
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