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Trust at the heart of happiness

By Sue Roffey | 2 July 2015


I recently returned from Denmark, often cited as one of the happiest places in the world.

The Happiness Research Institute, a Danish think-tank who publish a nation-wide Happiness Equality Index, explored the reasons for their high rates of happiness and trust features strongly.

The Danes trust each other, not simply their family and friends: 3 out of 4 believe they can trust most other people. With notable exceptions this trust shows up in every day life. They leave babies sleeping in prams outside cafes and most people would return a lost wallet with all its contents intact. A similar culture exists in Japan where there is very little street crime. If you miss the last train home you could take your phone and other valuables out of your pocket, lay your head on your jacket and expect to find all your belongings still by your side when you wake up.

Trust happens when you believe the best of people – rather than taking the view that they are out to get you!

The level of trust you place in people is based on your own experiences as well as the conversations happening around you. The media and public figures often talk up the bad stuff, and when this becomes the dominant voice you end up being suspicious of everyone rather than street wise about a few. Not everyone runs off with the purse of a person who has just had an epileptic fit, as was mentioned in the UK press recently – most people would find this an abhorrent act and seek to do what they could to help. It is even more problematic where where public figures or media stories demonise whole sections of the community – such as the homeless, the unemployed, migrants or Muslims – condemning them all with the same broad brush and making us wary of anyone who looks like they might fit a certain profile. When we lump people together like this rather than getting to know them and their stories this leads to distrust, disconnection and poor social capital.

High social capital happens where there is mutual respect, reliability and shared social values. High quality social connections are another reason the Danes are happy. They participate actively in their communities for the benefit of their communities. This leads to a virtuous spiral: when you get to know people, you discover that most of them are really quite nice, have similar hopes and dreams to you and very few wish you harm. In the end trust outweighs distrust when you make an effort to get to know people.

So if trust is a feature of flourishing lives how can we develop this?

Trust begins at home. No one should ever offer a child something they do not intend to deliver, neither promise nor threat. I have seen immense distress caused by estranged parents offering to phone or visit and not doing so. The feelings of rejection for children can be overwhelming – and often lead to despair or rage. Over the longer term the child learns that a parent’s word is a flexible option, not something to be relied upon and trusted and this can impact on all future relationships. One of the great benefits of school is that it often provides a place of consistency and stability for children who are not having the best experiences. It is in school where they might learn about the possibility and value of trust – though this will take time.

Trust needs to be considered within the context of expectations. People embarking on romantic relationships need to talk about what trust means to both of them and how this might change as the relationship deepens. Clear expectations at work enable colleagues to know what they need to do to not let others down.

When trust exists people feel safe: safe to say what is on their mind, knowing they will not be treated with derision; safe to take risks knowing that it is accepted that we all make mistakes sometimes; safe in knowing that others are not jumping to judgement or speaking negatively behind their backs and safe in knowing that what is said in confidence is treated with respect and not parcelled out for public consumption.

When people work or live together they often need to cooperate to reach mutually agreed goals, whether this is bringing up a family or achieving a production target. When people trust each other they empower and support each other and communicate in ways that ensure that each is heard. When individual, egotistic goals for power, status, control, a bonus or promotion are core motivations then trust diminishes, social capital evaporates, effectiveness is reduced and happiness for everyone takes a dive.

The best way to develop trust is to begin by being trustworthy. Only offer what you can deliver, be clear about what matters to you, talk about real issues, be honest about realities – especially your frailties and failings – and then take a leap of faith in trusting others. Most people do want to be decent human beings – give them the chance!

[Article originally published at]

About the Author: Sue Roffey

Sue Roffey

Sue is a psychologist, academic, author, activist and speaker. She is Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Western Sydney and founder member and Director of Wellbeing Australia. She is a Director of Growing Great Schools, a whole student - whole school wellbeing initiative.

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