Life is getting worse and other myths

Posted: Dec 28, 2005 12:05 AM

Looking back on 2005, I realize that much of what I heard -- and what the media said -- turned out to be myths. Newsweek reported that U.S. interrogators had flushed a Koran down a Guantanamo Bay toilet. After Hurricane Katrina, reporters said that sharks from Lake Pontchartrain were swimming through New Orleans, and roving bands of armed gang members were attacking the helpless. Myth after myth. So to celebrate the new year, I'd like to review my top 10 list of foolish myths. (ABC will broadcast a televised version of this column in "20/20"'s timeslot Friday night.):

 No. 10: Americans have less free time than we used to.

 No. 9. Money buys happiness.

 No. 8: Republicans shrink government.

 No. 7: The world is getting too crowded.

 No. 6. Chemicals are killing us.

 No. 5: Guns are bad.

 No. 4: We're drowning in garbage.

 No. 3: We're destroying our forests.

 No. 2: Getting cold will give you a cold.

 No. 1: Life is getting worse.

 A few of these myths have some truth behind them. For two or three billion people in the world trying to eke out a living on a dollar or two a day, money would buy some happiness. If you can't feed your family, money makes a big difference. But in America, research suggests that once your income reaches $50,000, more money won't make you happier. People say they'd be happier if they "just made 20 percent more," but "happiness researchers" tell me that such happiness quickly fades. A survey of 49 of the Forbes richest found they weren't any happier than the rest of us. One expert put it this way: "Even though no one can be blessedly happy without external goods" -- such as money and the things it can buy -- "we must not think that to be happy we will need many large goods." It was Aristotle who said that, and he was right.

 "Look at all the billionaires," recording executive Russell Simmons told me. "If I know 15 billionaires, I know 13 unhappy people."

 What does bring happiness? Marriage (not always, obviously, but on average, married people rate themselves happier than singles), deep friendships, belief in God, and purposeful work. Aristotle was right again: So long as you have the resources you need to take care of yourself and do good deeds, it's your own actions, and particularly the noble ones, that make you happy.

 Money makes all sorts of actions possible, beginning with staying alive. But it's the actions that make us happy.

 To briefly expand on two of the other myths: Republicans shrink government? Not in the past 75 years. At one of his State of the Union speeches, President Bush was applauded after talking about "spending discipline," but since he became president, the government has hired a million more people and increased spending more than on President Clinton's watch. It's not just because of terrorism. During Bush's first five years, spending at the Department of Labor was up 31 percent, Agriculture: 38 percent, Education: 81 percent. And the new prescription drug benefit is yet to be counted. Put a politician in power, and he'll take your money and spend it. That's what politicians do. Even Republicans.

 "Life getting worse" is myth No.1 because in TV newsrooms, I hear a constant whine about life getting worse: avian flu will kill us if terrorism doesn't get us first; crime and pollution keep increasing, and the poor are suffering. But in truth, life keeps getting better. We live longer than ever, and with less pain (think about dental care in the 1960s). Crime is down. In America, even poor people have homes, cars, and access to music and other entertainment that was once only available to royalty. Pollution? The air and water keep getting cleaner. I jumped in the Hudson River not long ago to illustrate the point. There I was, swimming away and looking up at the Empire State building. Despite eight million people flushing nearby, the health department says swimming in the Hudson is now perfectly safe.

 Despite all the complaints from the media, life keeps getting better. Let's complain less and enjoy 2006.