Tiffany Jenkins: Let’s celebrate life’s positives

Let's concentrate on the positives this Christmas. Picture: Stuart Cobley

Let's concentrate on the positives this Christmas. Picture: Stuart Cobley

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VIOLENT crime’s down, life expectancy’s up, and we’re out-earning our grandparents. So let’s try for a moan-free Christmas, says Tiffany Jenkins

If it bleeds, it leads – right? That’s the usual story when it comes how some newspapers what are their most important stories, which means that there’s often a downer on every page. So I had to do a double-take this week when I read the front-page headline: “Violent crime down”.

It wasn’t a misprint, there was no need for a retraction or correction, because it is true: official statistics show a 10 per cent reduction in violent crime in Scotland between 2013-14. The number of homicides have halved over seven years. In fact, the level of recorded crime has reached its lowest level in 40 years, falling by 1 per cent in the past year. Another notable trend is that the clear-up rate – crimes which have been solved – is rising.

Recorded crime isn’t just falling in Scotland – the same thing is happening in England and Wales too. In fact, if you take an international and a historical view, you will see that human society is much less violent than at any time in our past. According to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, violence has been in decline over millennia. This is the most peaceful time in the history of humanity.

It may not feel like it, but in most aspects of all our lives there have been marked improvements in the past few decades and centuries. So as we hurtle towards what is likely to be an expensive and chilly time, when families get to spend days together getting on each other’s nerves, let us count the ways in which we can be thankful.

Forget the doom, disease, poverty, war and terror, the economic crisis and the weather bomb – just for a moment. Ignore the impending gloom at the predictable small-minded bickering in the run-up to next year’s general election, and pause: there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. If you were looking on the bright side of life, this is what you would see.

In the Reith lectures, the doctor and writer Atul Gawande diagnosed what is wrong with medicine and how to address it. He also highlighted the dramatic and positive advances that have been made in the last century. Just a couple of generations ago, in the pre-penicillin years, medicine was cheap but ineffective. Hospitals offered warmth, shelter and care, but not much else. There was little they could do but put you to bed.

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Today, we know so much more and can better tackle and defeat diseases. Polio, cholera, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, smallpox, and diphtheria are experienced primarily through literature or history, rather than in real life. Sure, we cannot cure it all – we never will be able to – and distribution of care is unequal (too much depends on living in a modern country and being wealthy) but the twentieth century has seen the most amazing increase in average life expectancy, due to advances in medicine and improvements in public health.

In 1900 most babies did not live past the age of 50. Today, life expectancy at birth exceeds 80 years. In Scotland, where the mortality rate is the highest in the UK, the gap with England has narrowed. Now, more Scots are killed by cancer than used to be the case. This is cheerier news than may first appear – cancer is a killer because the number of fatal heart attacks and strokes are down.

And the advances continue. I remember growing up terrified by the information adverts about AIDS – with the grey tombstone, telling us not to die of ignorance – without understanding what it was or how one contracted it. Now, medical science may be on its way to eradicating HIV for all those infected. A cure is a long way off, but progress is being made. And in other areas of human health and medicine, there are major breakthroughs. Scottish scientists are working with stem cell technology to create human blood in the laboratory. In a couple of years, it could be used create a limitless supply to treat patients all over the world.

What about the quality of life, before we get sick? Well, here too there are improvements. Financially, we are better off. On average, people all over the world earn about three times more today than 50 years ago. Poor counties are getting richer, if not fast enough. And that’s not taking into account general improvements in living standards: cheap flights, affordable and better food, large-screen TVs, mobile phones, computers that can do more than we ever thought possible. There was shock expressed at the fall in oil prices this week, but one very good reason for the drop is that we are less reliant on fossil fuels. There are positive steps being made here too.

I may moan about dumbing down in the arts, but the quality and availability of culture is amazing. There is so much choice at the end of the remote control. Then there are the box sets, good books, cinemas, concert halls, theatres and museums. Shopping is easier, with supermarkets open all hours, many of which will deliver to the front door. All of this frees up time for us to spend the weekends how we wish to, which is a very good thing. Often this means time spent with friends or the kids. And the generations are getting on rather well. Some teenagers even like their parents. What else? Well, the divorce rate is edging down a little and gay people can choose to get married too. Wedding bells are ringing for all.

So look around, things are not as bad as we make them out to be. In no way am I saying we should sit back and do nothing, not confront the very real problems that we all still face, or airbrush them away. We shouldn’t rest on our laurels, but we can be thankful that it’s not all bad news. It’s a glass half full, rather than glass half empty state of affairs. Cheers!

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