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Opinion: 'You might think Ireland's fast going to hell in a handbasket. But that’s not true'

It’s been a tough week – but Ireland does have a lot of positive things going for it, writes author Mark Henry.

Mark Henry

WHY DO WE play Scrooge instead of acknowledging Ireland’s progress?

It’s the season to be jolly, so let’s not resort to ‘bah, humbug!’ when it comes to appreciating the progress we are making as a country.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Irish weren’t proud of the place. The daily news cycle and social media commentary convey a sense that we are fast going to hell in a handbasket. But that’s not true.

The quality of life in Ireland today is judged amongst the very highest in the world – second only to that of Norway, according to the United Nations. The Irish now earn more, learn more, and live longer than practically every other nation on Earth.

In fact, Ireland is the only developed country to have risen more than 20 places since the UN started their survey in 1990. If we entirely eliminate the impact of multinationals from our income then we drop to seventh or eighth place, but that is still an astonishing achievement worth celebrating as we approach our 100th birthday as an independent nation.

From there to here

Think of where we have come from. Recall the images of extreme poverty in the 1920s from your school history books – the ragged, barefooted children of the tenements, or the labourer with his family of ten posing outside his two-roomed cottage. Think of the waves of emigration that saw one-third of those aged in their 20s up sticks and leave in the 1950s. Think of the unemployment and rampant inflation of the 1970s that saw prices quadruple in a decade.

Think too of our most recent economic crash and how, pre-Covid, we had recovered to reach even greater numbers in employment and new highs in income and savings. The post-Covid recovery is already well underway with exports soaring, record levels of GDP, and job creation that will see a return to full employment within two years.

Yet, like Scrooge, many of the social media commentators would have you believe that things are worse than ever. We can’t seem to see the good side of anything – even at Christmas. What’s going on?

Negativity bias

It’s partly how we’re built as humans. I explore the leading biases that blind us to positive progress in my book In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100. Topping the list is our ‘negativity bias’. Our prehistoric ancestors were attuned to spotting danger in order to survive. We’ve an inherited tendency to pay more attention to bad news than good.

This is compounded by our difficulty in thinking long-term. You’ve heard the analogy of the frog in the kitchen pot: if you slowly increase the water temperature, supposedly, the frog fails to notice and ends up boiling to death.

In reality, frogs aren’t dumb and they jump out every time. But there is an underlying truth in the analogy – namely, that humans aren’t good at spotting change that occurs slowly. I’ve labelled our inability to recognise gradual improvement as ‘Progress Attention Deficit’.

Harvard University researchers recently uncovered a new bias. It seems the more we solve problems, the more problems we see. As poverty is reduced over time, for example, we tend to identify more things as signs of poverty that need to be addressed. Our brains mislead us into thinking things aren’t improving even when we do make notable progress.

The downside of having continuous access to news through the phone in our pocket and through hundreds of TV channels on multiple screens is that our biases are more easily indulged and amplified. There’s bad news on the doorstep. But it’s also on the bus. And in the coffee queue. And in the bathroom. And it is misleading us into believing that there are more bad things happening. At a time when life in Ireland has never been better, we voluntarily lead ourselves down dark alleys that feel threatening.

infact-book-float

Progress is not experienced equally by everybody, needless to say, and not all of us are happy with our lives. However, 97% of us are. That’s the number who said that they were fairly or very happy with their lives in the most recent EU survey. We’d all still love to win the lottery, of course, but you don’t get a sense of this pervasive degree of contentment from many of our media commentators and social media keyboard warriors.

So what’s the solution? Should we await the ghost of Christmas past to set our minds to rights?

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Yes, I believe that there is immense value in looking to the past to understand our present and our future trajectory. By taking time to reflect factually on our positive achievements then we can put today’s challenges in perspective. It provides us with valuable balance and context to today’s news.

Knowledge of our perceptual biases, furthermore, enables us to check ourselves and to challenge our thinking. It’s by engaging the rational side of our brains that we can conquer the biases inherent in the unquestioning flow of unconscious cognition. Research demonstrates that just pausing a second to ask yourself ‘is this true?’ makes it less likely you will succumb to accepting fake news as fact.

None of this is to negate the fact that Ireland has pressing challenges to address. If we are to sustain our place amongst the world’s leading nations, then we will need to further improve our quality of life just as others will do.

We must address our housing shortage both to sustain our social cohesiveness by meeting the reasonable expectations of our young adults, but also to ensure we have the capacity to accommodate the talent we need to attract from overseas to sustain our economic growth.

Our superior education levels are one of Ireland’s competitive advantages in the battle for inward investment, and a means of enabling our people to realise their personal potential. Yet, the government is now investing half the amount in higher education per student than it did before the great recession. Our third-level institutions are tumbling down the international rankings as a result.

And much of the progress we made over the past century was achieved in ignorance of the damage it was causing to our natural environment. We are amongst Europe’s worst emitters of carbon dioxide and even our protected animal habitats are overwhelmingly judged to be bad or inadequate. That is the very definition of unsustainable.

We have, however, never been better positioned to tackle these challenges. No generation before us has been better educated, healthier or wealthier.

Christmas is a time when we reflect on the year that was and commit to making positive changes in the year ahead. When you wake up tomorrow, why not resolve to spend more time acknowledging the good stuff happening around you, and to show greater appreciation for our fellow citizens who are working to improve life in Ireland? To be more like Scrooge, in fact.

‘In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100’ explores 100 remarkable achievements of Ireland’s first independent century and is available now in all bookstores. See www.markhenry.ie for more.

About the author:

Mark Henry

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