A simple theory of baseline mood

October 14, 2017
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During much of the 1982-2001 period, the Western world seemed to be moving in a very favorable direction, indeed most of Asia too.  Over time, Westerns intellectuals and commentators came to expect triumphant feelings and relatively low levels of stress.

9/11, the financial crisis, and now Brexit/Trump/populism/nationalism have upset this feeling.  The level of stress is now especially high in part because it was, not long ago, especially low.  The contrast is difficult for us to stomach, and comparisons with say Richard Nixon or Andrew Jackson help only a little.

In the postwar era, running up through the 1980s, the objective level of stress was much higher than today.  The risk of nuclear war was pretty high, overt racism was much more common, the safety net was much weaker, and it was far from clear that so much of the world would develop economically or become democratic.  Yet all this came right after the easily-remembered stress of World War II, and so it felt like a relief nonetheless.

As a kind of coincidence, memories of World War II wore off just as stress-relieving positive events were kicking into full gear.  That gave America an especially long period of low stress, unprecedented by historical standards.

We are not used to feeling as much stress as we do today.  Yet even in the optimistic scenarios in my predictions, the level of stress today is relatively low compared to what we can rationally expect for the next few decades.

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