Opinion: Some rays of hope shine after a tough year

It’s the beginning of a new year and time to take annual stock of the past, present and future.

By almost any standard, 2017 was a tough 12 months for most Americans.

We’re stressed.

The American Psychological Association’s 2017 annual Stress in America survey reports that “compared to last year, Americans are more likely to report symptoms of stress, which include anxiety, anger and fatigue.” In declining order, more than half are worried about the future of the nation, money, work, the current political climate, and violence and crime.

We’re pessimistic.

Various polls tell us that we have serious concerns about our future and our institutions. Sixty percent believe this is the lowest point in the nation’s history they can remember; the country is on the wrong track; and our children’s financial situation will be worse than their parents’. Fewer than one-third have confidence in our banks, big business, Congress, the criminal justice system, news sources, organized labor and the presidency.

We’re not very happy and getting less so.

A Harris poll reports that only one-third of Americans say they are happy. A recent paper from the National Bureaus of Economic Research says that the “data shows, unambiguously, that Americans’ evaluations of their own happiness has been falling in recent years.” All economic groups — high school dropouts, high school graduates, college educated — are less happy now than they were in 1972.

But pessimism should not completely rule the day. There are rays of hope.

America and the world have made progress in important areas of social welfare. The economy is getting stronger and unemployment is low; crime rates, including violent crimes, are down; high school and college graduations are up; and global poverty, hunger and infant mortality are on the decline.

Our situation may not be as bad as it appears. The annual Perils of Perception survey looks at the gap between people’s perception and reality. On “the who’s most wrong” index, we placed 35 out of 40 countries in 2016 and 16 in 2017. For example, this year, 79 percent of Americans believed that the murder rate was the same or higher than in 1995. In fact it has declined by 13 percent.

And finally, the current negatives have an important silver lining: discontent has driven us to be more involved with our democracy. Recent voter turnout is high (e.g., the recent Alabama senatorial race had twice the projected turnout); we are increasingly acknowledging long-standing problem areas like racial bias and sexual harassment/assault; and polls tell us that significantly more people are paying increased attention to politics.

It is unlikely that 2018 will be very different from 2017. In fact, it is probable that anxiety and conflict will continue to dominate the foreseeable future. But as we face the challenges, we must remember that our voices make a difference, that facts are important and that we firmly believe that America will be a nation where equality, justice, freedom and compassion rule the day.

— Gene A. Budig is the former president of Illinois State and West Virginia universities and former chancellor of the University of Kansas. He was also past president of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.