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Professor Steven Tepper delivers the keynote at the annual ArtsFun luncheon. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Humanity has never been in better shape than it is today.

That’s what sociologist Steven Tepper argues, anyway. But it certainly doesn’t feel that way for many people. Tepper, who serves as dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, has a theory as to why. He shared it during the annual ArtsFund charity luncheon in Seattle Thursday.

“We have never been better and we have never felt worse,” he said. “That’s what I want us to think about. Why is that the case? It’s the case because we’ve also never experienced change the way we’re experiencing it now. We are at an accelerated, unbelievable rate of change. This is incredible.”

Tepper’s claim that we’ve never been better is based on statistics on global poverty, sanitation, life expectancy, literacy, and productivity. Still, he acknowledges the fact that our anxieties about the state of the world are at an all-time high — the result of the exponential rate at which technology is accelerating.

“This rapid change is causing extraordinary amounts of anxiety … when we’re facing this kind of change, there are really only two responses,” Tepper told the crowd, comprised of patrons of the arts, business leaders, and elected officials from the city and state. “The first is fear. Cognitive science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, they all show us that when we’re facing change our natural response is to a threat response, to feel fearful, to hunker down, to close up, to protect. The other response is creativity. To imagine the future. To imagine how to adapt to the change.”

To reduce the fear and hostility that can come from relentless change, Tepper says we have to foster creativity by supporting the arts. In doing so, he says, we can improve the health of our communities and encourage innovation and productivity.

Tepper’s keynote address built on a theme that carried throughout the event. Entrepreneur Glenn Kawasaki, writer Sherman Alexie, and representatives from the ArtsFund all touted the arts as an antidote for the social and political anxieties we’re faced with today.

For the past four decades, the ArtsFund has been raising money from the community that it doles out via grants to Seattle-area arts organizations. The luncheon Thursday highlighted jazz musicians, dancers, and other creatives that are beneficiaries of the ArtsFund.

In their own way, each of the speakers stressed the notion that access to the arts is beneficial to communities and the broader economy. Tepper said this is particularly true for people in the science, technology, and math fields because a passion for art translates to more creativity and innovation in other work.

“It’s hard to find a silver bullet for anything,” he said. “As sociologists, we’re constantly trying to find that variable that has the biggest impact on improving quality of life. It turns out that the arts are probably, if there was a silver bullet, it would be the arts. The evidence is so strong and so robust.”

Watch a video from the event below.

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