This Thanksgiving, let's be grateful for human progress

When Americans are asked what they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, family is the most common response. They also tend to be grateful for their friends and health.

This Thanksgiving, we encourage Americans to also be thankful for human progress. Past progress is not only something we should be grateful for but understanding it may also play a crucial role in cultivating the type of mindset needed to promote future progress. Unfortunately, many of the young Americans who will become the political, business and cultural leaders of tomorrow do not appear to be learning about the progress our world has achieved in recent decades.

When it comes to human progress, there is much to celebrate. 

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Extreme poverty dropped from 43 percent of the world’s population in 1981 to around nine percent today. Global life expectancy increased from 57.9 years in 1972 to about 72 years today. The percentage of undernourished people in developing countries declined from 23 percent in 1990 to about 13 percent today. The percentage of 15 to 24-year-olds who are unable to read worldwide dropped from 24 percent to less than 10 percent over a 50-year period.

In the United States, over the last five decades, life expectancy has increased 11 percent, infant survival has increased 70 percent, income per person has increased 130 percent and the average number of years of schooling has increased 26 percent. And there are many, many more examples.

In order to be grateful for human progress, people need to know about it. What better place to spread the word about human progress than our colleges and universities? These are the institutions tasked with training tomorrow’s leaders, helping them to figure out their mission in life and the best ways for them to apply their talents and interests.

However, that knowledge is absent in many corners. In a survey conducted by the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth at North Dakota State University, in collaboration with College Pulse, we asked 1,000 students at 71 four-year American colleges and universities a range of questions about the state of human progress and their attitudes about the future, based on what they have learned in college. Only half of current college and university students indicated that, based on what they have learned in college, the world has improved over the last 50 years, in terms of extreme poverty, life expectancy, hunger and literacy.

Why does this matter? In order to solve big problems and make societal advancements, people benefit from maintaining an optimistic outlook about the future of the world and their own lives. Indeed, a large body of research indicates that optimism promotes persistence in pursuing goals, goal-achievement, creativity, innovation, social trust and civic engagement. 

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Yet our survey finds that only a quarter of college students are optimistic about the future of the world and the United States, only half are optimistic about their own futures, and only 44 percent are optimistic about their ability to make a difference in the world, based on what they have learned in college. Moreover, using statistical analyses that allow us to account for a number of variables that may influence optimism, such as socioeconomic status and psychological wellbeing, we find that knowledge of human progress is a unique and strong predictor of optimism. The students who report that their college experience suggests the world has been getting better over the last 50 years are the students who are most likely to also report that their college experience has made them optimistic about the future of the world, the United States, their own future and their ability to make a difference in the world. 

These results are correlational, so we are not able to say with certainty that learning about progress causes students to become more optimistic, but there is reason to believe that the more a college education helps students appreciate human progress, the more it will help them approach the future with optimism and agency. Indeed, other research shows that teaching young people to be grateful inspires optimism and the motivation to contribute positively to society.

Despite the major challenges facing society, we have much to be grateful for this holiday season. Let’s not forget human progress. By appreciating it and spreading the message to future generations, we can help inspire the mindset needed to build a better tomorrow.

Clay Routledge is the Arden & Donna Hetland Distinguished Professor of Business at North Dakota State University, a faculty scholar at the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, and a senior research fellow at the Archbridge Institute. John Bitzan is the Menard Family Director of the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth.