Fear of Good News

Are you afraid of catching the mumps? How about bird flu? If so, you're obviously not alone. But you might be cheered up by some ...
by | April 21, 2006

Fear_1 Are you afraid of catching the mumps? How about bird flu? If so, you're obviously not alone.

But you might be cheered up by some news from the National Center for Health Statistics. According to preliminary data, the number of deaths in the United States dropped by 50,000 in 2004 -- the steepest decline since 1938. That's despite all the concerns about obesity and an aging population.

That's good news, right? So why aren't we hearing more about that, and less about the 1,100 people who have contracted (non-fatal) cases of mumps?

This is an old story. You can blame those of us in the media for preferring to bear ill tidings. There's a lot of truth to that.

But we also live in a culture in love with fear.

Gregg Easterbrook wrote a whole book about this a couple of years ago called The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. We enjoy, in a sense, worrying about new and therefore seemingly more threatening events.

No one seems to get terribly worked up about the 36,000 people who die in this country every year from plain old flu, or the nearly 40,000 annual traffic fatalities. These are much bigger killers than others that get in the news (including, let's face it, terrorism).

It's easy to dismiss people who say look on the bright side. But I think Easterbrook had a point. About a year ago, I heard the novelist Marilynne Robinson give a talk. She said she had swapped houses with an American couple who lived in Paris. When she went over there, she noticed they had a stack of Time magazines going back five years or so.

Looking them over in reverse chronological order, Robinson was struck by how many cover stories there were about things that were supposed to kill us all -- but didn't. I don't remember her specific examples but, if you think back, you can probably fill in the blanks -- AIDS, Y2K, shark attacks, etc.

It may be reasonable to worry about looming threats, such as bird flu and global warming. But it may be that the threats getting the headlines either ultimately won't be as threatening as their advance billing, or aren't as threatening as more mundane problems that we've learned to accept and live with.