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The world has taken a turn for the worst, survey says

Security forces clash with demonstrators as a motorcycle is set on fire during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, Venezuela May 29, 2017.
Carlos Eduardo Ramirez | Reuters
Security forces clash with demonstrators as a motorcycle is set on fire during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, Venezuela May 29, 2017.

Recent attacks in Manchester, Paris, Kabul and more are devastating displays of a world at odds.

Despite increased political and economic polarization, there is one thing the world can largely seem to agree on: the world is getting worse.

According to a survey of more than 21,000 people from 36 countries in all regions of the world, about 60 percent agree that the world has become worse in the past year, rather than getting better or staying the same.

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The Best Countries survey, which aims to gauge global perceptions of the state of the world, presented the question without further specifications, leaving interpretation up to survey respondents. This year's survey took place at the end of 2016, just after U.S. President Donald Trump had been elected, and shortly after the U.K.'s Brexit and Brazil's presidential impeachment.

"Threats to freedom, democracy and institutions in society that people rely on affect people immediately and their view of the future for their family and children." -Neal Rubin, professor of international psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology

The reasons driving responses to the survey question depend on individual circumstances and personalities, says Dr. Neal Rubin, a professor of international psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology. While economic inequality is growing, progress has been made against the United Nations' development goals, especially in terms of fighting disease, hunger and education inequality.

For those with a declinist sentiment, he says, fear and anxiety about the future may be in play.

"Safety and being able to maintain a way of life may feel under threat," he says. "Threats to freedom, democracy and institutions in society that people rely on affect people immediately and their view of the future for their family and children."

Of the 36 countries surveyed, negative responses were strongest in Turkey, which recently faced an attempted military coup. More than 80 percent of people surveyed in Turkey said that the world had become worse in the past year.

Modernization, with rapidly increasing globalization and urbanization, is also linked to anxiety about the future, Rubin says.

"As society is modernized and ways of life change, people have to adapt to the new ways in which society structures life and socioeconomic status plays into identities," he says. "The loss of cultural roots and traditions and changes in identity can lead to alienation, depression and hopelessness about ways to adapt to future."

But sometimes, it seems, money can buy happiness, or at least a more positive outlook. Survey respondents in India and China, two countries that have reaped some of the greatest economic benefits of globalization, were most likely to look back on the past year positively. More than 50 percent of respondents from India and more than 40 percent from China said that the world has improved in the past year.

"Profound social instability" linked to increased polarization of society, rising income inequality and an aging population is one of the most prominent risks identified in the World Economic Forum's annual Global Risks Report for 2017.

But a more "inward-looking world" creates opportunities to address the risks at hand, writes World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab.

"This will require responsive and responsible leadership with a deeper commitment to inclusive development and equitable growth, both nationally and globally," he says. "It will also require collaboration across multiple interconnected systems, countries, areas of expertise, and stakeholder groups with the aim of having a greater societal impact."