A lot can and has happened in the history of humanity. While it may be easier to pinpoint all the bad that’s happened over the last few centuries, the numbers don’t lie: we’ve also made a lot of progress.

In all areas of life — ranging from healthcare to innovation to arts and culture to education — we’re seeing significant changes for the better.

The data tells us that there have always been helpers in the world and it's thanks to their labor, empathy, and generosity that we’re seeing huge advancements for society as a whole. 

1. Life Expectancy Has Gone Up

It's clear and simple: people are living longer today — and in better health — than they were decades ago.

What does this mean? It means that advancements in society (whether it be in medicine or infrastructure) have made it so that human beings can extend their lifespan.

Historical data from Our World In Data have shown that global life expectancy has increased drastically, with substantial long-run improvements in all countries around the world.

Twice as long – life expectancy around the world The three maps show the global history of life expectancy over the last two centuries.1
Graphic courtesy of Our World in Data

It means that we're not seeing just increased life expectancy in just one country; we're seeing it in every country.

According to Our World In Data, there have been huge changes in the numbers from even a century ago.

For example, life expectancy in India and South Korea was as low as 23-years-old one hundred years ago: and now, it's tripled in India and quadrupled in South Korea.

On the x-axis you find the cumulative share of the world population. And all the countries of the world are ordered along the x-axis ascending by the life expectancy of the population. On the y-axis you see the life expectancy of each country.  For 1800 (red line) you see that the countries on the left – India and also South Korea – have a life expectancy around 25. On the very right you see that in 1800 no country had a life expectancy above 40 (Belgium had the highest life expectancy with just 40 years).  In 1950 the life expectancy of all countries was higher than in 1800 and the richer countries in Europe and North America had life expectancies over 60 years – over the course of modernization and industrialization the health of the population improved dramatically. But half of the world’s population – look at India and China – made only little progress. Therefore the world in 1950 was highly unequal in living standards – clearly devided between developed countries and developing countries.
Graphic courtesy of Our World in Data

In 1800, life expectancy around the world was as low as 32 years. In 1950, the global average was 48. But in 2012, the number rose to 78 years.

The living conditions around the world have made it possible for people to live longer and that’s always good news to celebrate.


2. Diseases Are Going Away

What used to plague us is now on the decline.

Over the course of the last few centuries, there have been incredible advancements in science that have allowed us to fight even the worst of diseases.

Smallpox, which was officially eradicated in 1980, is a great example. But we've continued to make progress against other diseases since then.

Decade in which smallpox ceased to be endemic by country

From malaria to AIDS, the numbers show that every year, there are fewer and fewer people affected by infectious diseases. 

Between 1996 and 2001, more than 3 million people were infected with HIV. But in 2017 and every year before then, the number of new infections began to decline until it reached its lowest number (below 2 million) since 1990.

The number of AIDS-related deaths swept through the 90s, but the annual number of AIDS-related deaths has been halved since then. In 2017, fewer than 1 million people died from AIDS.

The 1990s saw a substantial increase in the number of people infected with HIV and dying of AIDS.  Between 1996 and 2001 more than 3 million people were infected with HIV ever year. Since then the number of new infections began to decline and in 2017 it was reduced to below 2 million. The lowest number of new infections since 1990.  The number of AIDS-related deaths increased throughout the 1990s and reached a peak in 2005, 2006 when in both years close to 2 million people died. Since then the annual number of deaths from AIDS declined as well and was since halved. 2017 was the first year since the peak in which fewer than 1 million people died from AIDS.  The chart also shows the continuing increase in the number of people living with HIV. The rate of increase has slowed down compared to the 1990s, but the absolute number is at the highest ever with more than 36 million people globally living with HIV.
The 1990s saw a substantial increase in the number of people infected with HIV and dying of AIDS.

Between 1996 and 2001 more than 3 million people were infected with HIV every year. Since then the number of new infections began to decline and in 2017 it was reduced to below 2 million. The lowest number of new infections since 1990.

The number of AIDS-related deaths increased throughout the 1990s and reached a peak in 2005, 2006 when in both years close to 2 million people died. Since then the annual number of deaths from AIDS declined as well and was since halved. 2017 was the first year since the peak in which fewer than 1 million people died from AIDS.

The chart also shows the continuing increase in the number of people living with HIV. The rate of increase has slowed down compared to the 1990s, but the absolute number is at the highest ever with more than 36 million people globally living with HIV. / Courtesy of Our World in Data

Malaria, a disease transmitted through infected mosquitoes, is also on the decrease.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the number of people who die from malaria has been halved.

The death toll went from 839,000 in 2000 to 438,000 in 2015.

Malaria death estimates from WHO Since the beginning of the 21st century, the WHO has published global estimates of the number of people that die from malaria. In these 15 years the global death toll has been cut in half: from 839,000 deaths in 2000 to 438,000 in 2015.
Malaria death estimates from WHO

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the WHO has published global estimates of the number of people that die from malaria.

In these 15 years the global death toll has been cut in half: from 839,000 deaths in 2000 to 438,000 in 2015. / Courtesy of Our World in Data

3. More People Are Getting An Education

The right to education — particularly for women — has been an ongoing effort since the dawn of time.

But thankfully, more and more people are going and staying in school.

The value of education itself has only increased with time, with global literacy rates going up over the last two centuries.

Graph showing literacy rates improving since 1800
Graph courtesy of Our World in Data

According to Our World in Data, secondary and tertiary education have also seen drastic growth, with global average years of schooling being much higher now than a hundred years ago.

The growth of world literacy really took off after 1800, when governments around the world saw an expansion of basic education as a global priority.

Since the 1950s, there's been a 20 percent decrease in illiteracy around the world. Data also shows that younger generations are progressively getting better educated than older generations and the number of people who have zero formal education is on the decline around the world.

Share of the population with no formal education, projections by IIASA, 1970 to 2050
Historical data and projection / Graph courtesy of Our World in Data

In 1998, Our World in Data estimates that 381 million children were out of school, but that number dropped to 263 million worldwide despite an increase in the global youth population.

All in all, more people are getting their education and it continues to be a basic right worth fighting for.

4. Fewer People Are Living In Poverty

There are a number of factors that contribute to poverty and groups like women, religious minorities, and racial minorities are the most vulnerable.

According to Our World In Data, 85 percent of the world live on less than $30 per day, two-thirds live on less than $10 per day, and every tenth person lives on less than $1.90 per day.

But what history also tells us is that the number of people living in absolute poverty has fallen with every decade. 

Graph: Population living in exreme poverty continues to decrease
Graph by Our World in Data

According to Our World in Data, there were 1.9 billion people living in extreme poverty in 1990.

With a reduction to 735 million in 2015, this means that on average, every day in the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, 128,00 fewer people were living in extreme poverty.

In 1960, 45 percent of the world population were living in absolute poverty, with the number dropping to 24 percent in 1993.

Since then, the share of extremely poor people in the world has declined quickly.

In 32 years, the share of people living in extreme poverty was divided by 4, reaching levels below 10% in 2015.

A version of this article was originally published in The Change Edition of the Goodnewspaper — our monthly print newspaper filled with good news.

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