There are always things that are getting worse. For example, over the past year, you probably know someone who has become unemployed or ill or both, and there’s more carbon in the atmosphere inexorably heating up the planet.

But if you don’t recognize what’s improving in your own life, then you feel stagnant, or declining. This can foster what researchers call “learned helplessness” – a dangerously slippery slope. It typically takes only a few experiences of painful entrapment to create it but many times as many counter-experiences to undo it.

If you don’t recognize whatever is getting better in the people around you, then you might feel more disappointed or despairing than you need to feel – and they might feel not seen, criticized, or “why bother.”

If we don’t see the positive trends in our world amidst the negative ones – such as for many people, improved medical care and access to information, and less extreme poverty – then we’ll get swallowed up by all the bad news, and give up trying to make this world better.

This is not looking through rose-colored glasses. The point is to see life as it is, particularly your own life – including the progress that is occurring.

The Practice.

Be aware of little ways you move forward each day. Like getting to the bottom of a sink of dishes or to the end of a stack of emails. Knowing a little more when you go to bed than you did when you woke up. Earning a day’s wages, or a thank you, or a nod of respect.

Then consider a longer time-frame: How have you moved forward over the past twelve months? What have you grown, built, learned? What problematic things have you dropped?

See some of the many ways that your material circumstances are better than they were a year ago (no matter if they have worsened in other ways). Notice any shrubs that have grown, fences mended, new clothes acquired, more earning power, improved net worth.

See how things have improved in your relationships. With whom do you feel friendlier or closer or more trusting today than a year ago? And what’s gotten better in a different sense: stepping back from people who don’t treat you that well?

Recognize the sincere intentions, good efforts, and growing abilities in children you raise or teach, and in the people with whom you live and work.

Consider our sweet, soft planet. Given your values, what’s gotten better over the past 20 years? 50? 100? 1000? 10,000 years? Sure, we face unprecedented challenges. But all the major problems our ancestors had to solve were by definition unprecedented when they first appeared!

Would you rather deal with our global issues today . . . or – looking farther and farther back in time – with Dickensian levels of poverty and misery throughout the 19th century; with millennia of feudal lords, widespread slavery, and commonplace abuse of women and children; or with pervasive hunger and pain and violence in hunter-gatherer bands in which, as Thomas Hobbes put it, life was usually “nasty, brutish, and short”?

Personally, I’m tired of the widespread meme – “in these dark times” – however it gets expressed. It’s ignorant, defeatist, and often used to further an agenda. Every time in human history has been dark in some regards – and bright in many others. In a hundred ways, daily life is better for the average person worldwide than it’s ever been.

Recognizing progress does not mean overlooking suffering and sorrow, misery and injustice. In fact, understanding the ways in which some things are getting better helps bring encouragement and insight to the big pile of things that remain to be done.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. But to keep going we need to feel we’re making headway. Take heart: zigging and zagging, three steps forward and two steps back, slowly but surely, we can and will make our world a better place.

Like this article? Receive more like it each week when you sign up for Rick Hanson's free Just One Thing newsletter.

Author's Bio: 

Rick Hanson, PhD is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. His books have been published in 29 languages and include Neurodharma, Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture - with 900,000 copies in English alone. His free weekly newsletter has 185,000 subscribers and his online programs have scholarships available for those with financial need. He’s lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. An expert on positive neuroplasticity, his work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, NPR, and other major media. He began meditating in 1974 and is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He loves wilderness and taking a break from emails.