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."