2020 has been rough.
A pandemic, wildfires and hurricanes. Murder hornets, police brutality and protests. Locust swarms in East Africa and an explosion that virtually destroyed the port of Beirut. These are just a few examples of the wrath of 2020. Oh, and for good measure, one of the most consequential presidential elections in the history of the United States.
We’re all well-acquainted with the reasons for 2020’s terribleness, and we should be thankful we’ve made it this far.
But how bad — objectively — has 2020 really been? It seems that right around this time every year is when we always talk about how awful the year has been and how we long for a return to the past. Nostalgia is a powerful and elusive drug, so how can we be sure our hatred for 2020 stems from actual reason and not just human fallacy?
Spoiler alert: we can’t. We can’t simply rate the “badness” of 2020 on an objective, universal scale, and we certainly can’t rate years on their worst moments. At the same time, we can’t fully discount our hatred for this seemingly god-awful year.
We can, however, try to understand what it is about 2020 that seems so inherently terrible, and how this compares to previous years.
First and foremost, the obvious negative quality ascribed to 2020 is the pandemic. COVID-19 has bulldozed its way through the year, and it seems to only get worse as time goes on. We all have our own experiences with the pandemic, but it is evident its impact has been almost entirely negative.
However, to say this is the reason for 2020 being the worst year on record is to forget previous pandemics. COVID-19, although awful, is not unique. The Spanish Flu killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide from 1918 to 1919, and the Black Death killed more than 20 million people in Europe — nearly one-third of the continent’s population at the time— during the mid-1300s.
From a simple utilitarian perspective, COVID-19 has not had as terrible an impact as these two pandemics have. We are incredibly fortunate to now have modern medicine and at least a relative trust in science and technology.
For that reason, the pandemic actually works to explain why 2020 is not the worst year on record, despite explaining why it may be high up there.
The rough parts of 2020 cannot be branded as entirely negative.
For example, many would argue that one of the worst qualities of this year has been the continued display of racism and police brutality. However, because of this, 2020 has also seen some of the largest protests and movements demanding change.
This is not meant to undermine the evil we have witnessed this year. Instead, I want to emphasize that we cannot define things as simply good or simply bad.
At the same time, nostalgia can be incredibly powerful. It may be that we are correct in treating 2020 how we treat it, but we are incorrect in seeing past years as gloriful and stripped of their own most negative qualities.
Research from Carey Morewedge, a Boston University professor of marketing, has shown that Western culture tends to interpret current events negatively while viewing past events positively.
The truth is this: no year is all good or all bad, or really even comparable to another year.
We will always experience loss, but we will also experience the joy of bringing life into this world. We will have our hearts broken, and we will fall in love. We will laugh, cry, smile, sing, dance, fail, fear, succeed, doubt and trust — and we will do this year in and year out.
Our experiences as human beings can’t be simply explained by how good or how bad a year was, and they never could be. Sure, outside influences may impact us, and may do so to an extreme extent. But we can’t expect everyone to have the same reaction, nor can we expect those influences to be reserved to one year alone.
2020 has been a rollercoaster, to say the least, but the most important experiences we have can’t be defined by a simple number.