The United Nations has just published a new assessment of human development around the globe and Ireland was adjudged to be the country with the eighth highest quality of life on the planet. It is a truly remarkable achievement.
Although a whopping 90 per cent of countries experienced declines in wellbeing in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic – far exceeding the number that witnessed reversals in the wake of the global financial crisis – Ireland was not amongst them.
Yet it does not feel that way to many of us as the challenges mount up: spiralling energy costs, rising interest rates, a continued housing shortage, a steady stream of war refugees, and the ever-more evident effects of climate change.
But the UN is not making it up. Any comparative analysis of life in Ireland shows that we are extraordinary fortunate to live in this country. While quality of life has been steadily improving the world over since the UN began its research in 1990, no developed nation has experienced such rapid advancement over that timeframe as we have.
Countries with high rankings are those in which people live long, healthy lives; where they have the personal income to enjoy a high standard of living; and where they are well educated and can, therefore, fulfil their human potential. Ireland performs extraordinarily well on each of these measures.
Our average life expectancy is 82 years. That is one year longer than the British and an astonishing six years longer than Americans, who have experienced a precipitous decline recently due to Covid-19 and opiate overdoses.
Our number of hospital treatments has doubled in 20 years. Alcohol consumption is at its lowest level in 30 years. And smoking is at its lowest level in 50. Unsurprisingly, therefore, 84 per cent of us describe our health as good or very good – the highest figure in the EU.
Our personal incomes have never been higher. Income inequality is decreasing and reached a record low last year. And we have done a good job of combatting poverty: the percentage of people in consistent poverty declined to 4 per cent during the pandemic, also the lowest level on record.
We are amongst the most highly educated peoples on the planet. The majority of working age adults now have a third-level qualification – making us one of only a handful of countries for which this is true. Nearly seven in 10 of those who received their Leaving Cert results last week will go on to study at a third-level institution this autumn.
Surely we must be happy with our lot? We are, in fact. Pre-Covid 97 per cent of us described ourselves as generally happy people, and just as many said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. We do not live in a utopia, of course, but the pervasive torrent of negative news can make it hard to feel hopeful despite our remarkable achievements.
We are our own worst enemies. Human “negativity bias” means that we are programmed to pay more attention to bad stuff. In today’s world of 24/7 news availability we are prone to indulging ourselves to a degree that can be detrimental to our mental health. Greater consumption of negative news can lead to higher levels of anxiety, and mislead us about the true state of the world.
We are also burdened with short attention spans. Researchers at the University of California found that our ability to make past weather comparisons only extends back about five years – we find it difficult to assess environmental change beyond this. This makes us prone to what I call “progress attention deficit”: we don’t notice the barely discernible but relentless improvements in our quality of life over time.
We must counter these psychological biases to give ourselves a greater sense of hope. Engage your rational brain after your initial emotional response. Fact-check the matter in hand, in particular seeking out a longer-term perspective. Cut out the social media doomscrolling that sends you down a dark rabbit hole. Reflect on the positive improvements that you have experienced in your own lifetime and talk to others about the improvements they have experienced in theirs. A greater sense of perspective fosters hope.
None of this is to ignore the personal challenges facing individuals trying to keep their heads above water, or the generational challenges facing young adults who wish to get on the property ladder but with nothing affordable to buy, or the accelerating existential challenges of the deteriorating climate and loss of plant and animal life. Of course the challenges that we face are real.
But no generation before us has been better placed to tackle these. We are wealthier, healthier, and better educated than all of those who have lived on this island before us. Our success in building a world-leading nation should give us the confidence to drive on to further progress, and to inspire us to make Ireland one of the very best places on planet Earth for the generations who will follow.
As former president Mary Robinson put it at the launch of the UN report: “Our best future is ahead of us.”
Mark Henry is the author of In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100. See www.markhenry.ie for more