Why does every year feel like it’s getting worse?

Another year, another hail of obstacles and 2020 is yet to be matched. The past seems so much better, but is hindsight really 20/20?

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

Strolling through Memory Lane

In times like these, we tend to revisit our memories for comfort. We often recall these experiences in a positive light and skim over the real details.

Remember those beach holidays, where your feet treaded the powdery sand. You built castles with friends and ran through the swaying waves: that carefree bliss. See, you’re more likely to remember those happy feelings instead of the relentless sand you found weeks after and how badly the salty sea stung your eyes.

This golden filter we wash over our memories is called “nostalgia bias”.

As Carey Morewedge, a marketing professor at Boston University researching this area says:

“We’re judging the past on its greatest hits,
but we judge the present on everything we have available.”

Against today’s unfiltered dump, the polished past is an unfair weigh-up. On top of this, our mental health is currently bombarded with new issues like the changing lockdown rules combined with the boiling politics across local to international fields. As a result, we may be less optimistic and view the world through a more negative lens. So really, this year might not be as bad as you think, if you stop seeing the past as a fairy-tale.



Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Just to keep up with the spewing downpour that is 2020, many of us have succumb to “doomscrolling”: the need to constantly refresh social media and online news. It can get addictive and the non-stop bad news can leave us feeling hopeless. Mindless social media consumption can worsen the negative filter we might already have on the world.

What we read on-screen isn’t a direct mirror of reality. It’s important for us to interact and engage with content and actively connect with friends and family online to avoid digital burnout. A study on “mean world syndrome” found that a person spending more time watching violent TV had a greater chance of having a more dangerous view of the world. Social media consumption is not passive like TV, but it suggests that plainly scrolling through feeds can be harmful.


It’s all about perspective

In the “blue-dot” experiment, participants were shown hundreds of dots coloured from a range of deep purple to deep blue and asked whether each was blue or not. We’d expect the bluer the dot, the more people to answer blue. However, as fewer objectively blue dots were shown, people’s definition of blue expanded: purplish dots were now called blue. This effect is called “prevalence-induced concept change”.

What’s this got to do with anything? As Dan Gilbert, the co-author of the paper puts it:

“As problems become rare, we count more things as problems.”

This doesn’t say that all the new problems are fake or how we categorise things is extremely flexible. For example, a neurologist shouldn’t stretch their definition of a brain tumour, just because none were found.

In short, if nothing feels like it’s improving, it might be because your brain keeps moving the goalpost for what counts as good. So maybe the world isn’t all bad, there are still some good things to appreciate. Like a nice, warm cup of soup.


What can we do?

According to experts, learning to recognise and getting real with the lenses we see the world through can bring us much-needed relief from this year’s stressors. It’s important to break free from nostalgia bias and stop preferring the past. It helps to take rest from social media too. Rebuilding our negative interpretations of the present can help us redefine what we see as “good” or “bad”.

It’s not a walk in the park, but it’s also not all gloom!

Extra Reading:

12 Responses to “Why does every year feel like it’s getting worse?”

  1. Michelle Nguyen says:

    I completely agree, Keina. It’s satisfying to know that some reason is underlies it all!

  2. Keina says:

    It definitely helps to know that there is a scientific explanation of this feeling, really made me think of it from a new perspective!

  3. Michelle Nguyen says:

    Thanks Josh!

  4. Michelle Nguyen says:

    Thanks Po! Yeah it definitely helps to take a step back and see the entire situation as a whole.

  5. Michelle Nguyen says:

    Thank-you Stephanie. It’s really cool how one simple experiment can explain so much about how we interpret the world.

  6. Michelle Nguyen says:

    Thanks Joshua 🙂

  7. Michelle Nguyen says:

    Thanks Anita! It’s interesting how even realising about this unconscious type of thinking can alter your view on the world.

  8. Josh Thompson says:

    This was a really interesting read. Definitely something to think about over the the year and those to come.

  9. Popo says:

    Awesome article!
    This a very relatable situation for students where sometimes you only focus on your failures rather than your success.

    Drives people crazy!

  10. Stephanie Brown says:

    Wow. I’m shook from that “prevalence-induced concept change”… This explains something I’ve definitely noticed subconsciously but never put any real thought to. It’s like you become more and more open-minded as you go down a rabbit hole, but possibly to the detriment of simplicity and common sense.

    Ah, there’s so much about this that makes it a great blog post. Thank you so much.

  11. Joshua Sibbing says:

    Great article Michelle! The title made me laugh.

  12. Anita Chen says:

    I would never have thought my pessimism towards this year was because of a prevalence-induced concept change. That blue dot experiment sounds so fascinating! I’ll try and pay more attention to the better things 2020 has to offer