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Good News About Risk

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John F. Helliwell from the University of British Columbia, discusses the topic of risk using findings from the World Risk Poll.

The World Happiness Report

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Good News About Risk

Recognising the kindness of strangers predicts happiness. The Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll provides for the first time a complete and comparable set of data reporting how people around the world perceive the risks they face. There are three additional innovations that make the data of great value to the World Happiness Report and other well-being research.

First, the survey includes a measure of how satisfied people are with their lives as a whole, thereby providing a way to evaluate the relative importance of risks people face.

Second, for several risks the survey asks people whether they have directly faced a bad experience, e.g. a violent attack the preceding year, and then asks then how likely they are to suffer the same experience in the coming year. Comparing the two sets of answers permits researchers to see how closely interpersonal and international differences in perceived risks correspond with their actual experiences, and to see which has the more important influence on peoples’ happiness.

Third, the survey recognizes the importance of positive risks, as measured by the chances of something good happening in their lives. The key indicator is based on the confidence people have that a valuable item lost by them would be returned if found, alternatively, by a neighbour, a police officer, or a stranger. Globally, expected wallet return by police and by neighbours is almost equal, with expected return by strangers seen as less than half as likely. In countries with lower trust in government neighbours rank higher than police officers. Actual wallets have been dropped in many cities and countries, and are actually returned more often in places where people think their wallets are more likely to be returned. Thus the survey answers match reality, when different places are compared. But peoples’ perceptions are unduly pessimistic about the kindness of strangers. More than half of the Lloyd's survey respondents think that their valuable object is not at all likely to be returned if found by a stranger, and fewer than one in ten thinks return to be very likely. Yet actual experiments show a majority of wallets returned in almost all countries, with three-quarters being common in higher trust countries.

The World Happiness Report and other well-being research has already shown that people are much happier living in places where others stand ready to help them in times of need. To believe that others would return your lost wallet or other item of value is a very important support for happiness. The Lloyd's Foundation data permit us to show, for the first time, that the presence of positive support from others adds more to happiness than the perceived absence of the negative events that are the usual focus for risk analysis. Among the seven risks where worries are compared with actual occurrence, worries are greatest for violent crime. Yet neither worry about violent crime, not its actual or expected occurrence, matters half as much to life evaluations as does belief in the kindness of strangers.

The Lloyd's Register Foundation World Risk Poll was undertaken alongside the Gallup World Poll, which provides the key data underlying the annual World Happiness Reports. The World Risk Poll data has been made publicly available, and can therefore be used to enlarge the range of variables used to explain international differences in the key life evaluations used to compare national happiness levels. Putting the Foundation’s risk measures, both positive and negative, into equations that explain happiness differences among individuals, as measured by their evaluations of life as a whole, greatly enriches what can be learned about the well-being costs of worries as well as the well-being benefits of the generosity of neighbours, police, and strangers. The results show, as already hinted by simple correlations, that both across individuals and among nations, more then twice as much of the happiness difference among more than 130,000 respondents is explained by expected wallet return than by any one of the negative risks, including violent crime. This confirms and extends what is becoming a cornerstone result in well-being research, that the presence of positives matters as much and often more than the absence of negatives.


The World Happiness Report

The 2021 World Happiness Report was launched after the publication of this article with Finland once again taking the top spot as the happiest country in the world. The World Happiness Report is a publication of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, powered by data from the Gallup World Poll. It includes the World Risk Poll by Lloyd’s Register Foundation, and the life satisfaction data collected during 2020 as part of the Covid Data Hub.

Read the report here
The cover of the World Happiness Report 2021.