When asked what they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, the most common response is family. They are also thankful for their friends and health.
This Thanksgiving, we encourage Americans to be grateful for human progress as well. Not only should we be grateful for past progress, but understanding it may also play an important role in cultivating the type of mindset required to promote future progress. Unfortunately, many of the young Americans who will become tomorrow’s political, business, and cultural leaders do not appear to be learning about the advances made by our world in recent decades.
There is much to be thankful for in terms of human progress.
Extreme poverty has decreased from 43 percent of the world’s population in 1981 to around 9% today. Global life expectancy has risen from 57.9 years in 1972 to approximately 72 years today. The proportion of undernourished people in developing countries has decreased from 23% in 1990 to around 13% today. Over a 50-year period, the percentage of 15- to 24-year-olds worldwide who are unable to read fell from 24 percent to less than 10 percent.
Over the last five decades, life expectancy in the United States has increased by 11%, infant mortality has increased by 70%, per capita income has increased by 130%, and the average number of years of schooling has increased by 26%. There are numerous other examples.
People must be aware of human progress in order to be grateful for it. What better place than our colleges and universities to spread the word about human progress? These are the organizations tasked with educating tomorrow’s leaders, assisting them in determining their life’s mission and the best ways for them to apply their talents and interests. However, in many places, that knowledge is lacking. In a survey conducted by the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth at North Dakota State University in collaboration with College Pulse, we asked 1,000 students from 71 four-year American colleges and universities a variety of questions about the state of human progress and their attitudes toward the future based on what they had learned in college. Only half of current college and university students believe that, based on what they have learned in college, the world has improved in terms of extreme poverty, life expectancy, hunger, and literacy over the last 50 years.
What is the significance of this? People benefit from having a positive outlook on the future of the world and their own lives in order to solve big problems and make societal advancements. Indeed, a large body of research indicates that optimism promotes goal-achievement, persistence in pursuing goals, creativity, innovation, social trust, and civic engagement.
Despite this, according to our survey, only a quarter of college students are optimistic about the future of the world and the United States, half are optimistic about their own futures, and 44 percent are optimistic about their ability to make a difference in the world based on what they have learned in college. Furthermore, we find that knowledge of human progress is a unique and strong predictor of optimism when we use statistical analyses that allow us to account for a number of variables that may influence optimism, such as socioeconomic status and psychological well-being.
Students who report that their college experience indicates that the world has improved over the last 50 years are more likely to report that their college experience has made them optimistic about the future of the world, the United States, their own future, and their ability to make a difference in the world.
Because these findings are correlational, we cannot say with certainty that learning about progress causes students to become more optimistic. However, there is reason to believe that the more a college education helps students appreciate human progress, the more they will approach the future with optimism and agency. Indeed, other research indicates that teaching young people to be grateful fosters optimism and the desire to make a positive contribution to society.
Despite the major challenges facing society, we have much to be grateful for this holiday season. Let’s not forget human progress. By appreciating it and spreading the message to future generations, we can help inspire the mindset needed to build a better tomorrow.