OF COURSE 2015 was a miserable year; all years are miserable. It was a year of rampage killings and police brutality, of natural disasters and government corruption. There were ghastly terror attacks and devastating civil wars, floods of refugees and acts of unspeakable cruelty. Airliners were blown out of the sky. Priceless antiquities were destroyed. Politics seethed with incivility. Too many innocents died young, too many officials lied, too many victims suffered.
You don't have to look far for proof that this has been an annus horribilis, and that things are getting worse. You never do. The conviction of decline routinely grips human beings, even human beings living in an age of progress and safety. The Associated Press once published a news analysis under the headline: "Everything Seemingly Is Spinning Out of Control." The world was going "haywire," the AP observed; people were understandably discouraged by "the onslaught of dispiriting things." As it happens, that article ran in 2008. But an update with the same headline could just as readily be published this year, or any year.
Yet in reality, 2015 was in many ways an annus mirabilis — a year of wonders and blessings. Sample some of the evidence.
• Twelve months ago, West Africa was being racked by the worst epidemic of Ebola disease in recorded history. More than 11,000 people, many of them health workers, were dying of a viral sickness for which no vaccine existed. Today, amazingly, the number of confirmed Ebola cases in West Africa can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and researchers in August reported finding a vaccine that appears to be 100 percent effective in preventing the disease.
• Girls and women in some of the world's hellholes continue to be all too cruelly victimized. On the other hand, female literacy around the planet reached new heights in 2015. As recently as the 1970s, only 40 percent of females age 15 and older could read and write. Just four decades later, according to UNESCO, global female literacy has passed 93 percent.
• In the United States, mass shootings and terrorist assaults took a grim toll this year and drew intense media coverage. But the FBI's newest report on crime in America (compiling data through 2014) shows that violent crime was down, not up. There were fewer homicides and robberies than there had been a year earlier — and far fewer than five and 10 years earlier.
• Thugs with weapons wrought undisputed horrors in places like Syria and Libya, yet there were democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power too — in countries ranging from Nigeria to Argentina to Myanmar to Burkina Faso. And Tunisia's National Dialogue Quartet received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for proving that democracy and pluralism could be nurtured even in the Arab world's stony soil.
Pointing to these and other pieces of decidedly good news, economist Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, describes 2015 as "the best year in history for the average human being to be alive." As 2016 approaches, he writes, humankind is "better-educated, better-fed, healthier, freer, and more tolerant" than ever before.
Hard to believe? That's understandable. People are generally more dubious about good news and positive trends. Our species tends to be hardwired for pessimism — a tendency reinforced by the media, which devote far more attention to violence and tragedy than to safety and success. Beheadings dominate news coverage for weeks on end; spectacular medical advances are a one- or two-day story at best.
Men and women have always tended to romanticize the way things were when they were young.
"The humor of blaming the present and admiring the past," the Scottish philosopher David Hume remarked in 1777, "is strongly rooted in human nature." It's an instinct worth resisting. Not because the world is never a messy, scary, tear-filled place, but because it is less so now than it used to be. These really are the good old days. Next year will be even better.