The Good Life Around the World

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental group of 34 mostly developed countries, is seeking out the answer to one of humanity’s most fundamental questions: what makes the good life? Most people across the world would probably answer that it is a combination of things, such as good health, adequate leisure and social time, and a decent income.

Based on these relatively universal assumptions, the OECD’s Better Life Index tries to answer the questions by analyzing the average well being of its member states (plus other nations such as Brazil and Russia) based on 23 factors across eleven dimensions, including health, financial wealth, civic engagement, social support, and work-life balance.

While most of the data is drawn from reports conducted by each country’s government, they also include public opinion surveys that ask respondents from each country about their perceived health and life satisfaction. The combination of objective and subjective information gives a fairly broad and reliable picture of the average person’s state of well being; both material conditions and self perception matter when it comes to having a good life.

The Pew Research Center analyzed the data and produced a summary of the results, which unsurprisingly found that life is better in wealthier countries such as Norway, Australia and the U.S. than in poorer or austerity ridden nations like Turkey, Mexico, Greece, and Portugal.

But its findings also showed that life is nonetheless pretty good in most of the countries measured, with almost all nations falling within the OECD average range.


Pew’s results also touched on the nuances of how we judge the good life.

For example, if you think well-being is defined by financial wealth and household income, the U.S. is the place for you. But if you prefer time off from work, France is the ideal place, by far, to put down roots. On the other hand, if you are trying to avoid victimization and dying from assault, Mexico is not your ideal destination.

You can see this play out in a comparison of five OECD countries by all 23 indicators.


As in so many other international indexes of national performance, you will notice in the first chart that Northern European nations top the list in terms of average well being, with six out of the top ten (and the first three out of the top five) being from the region. Here are some of the other results:

Other rich countries, like Australia (0.59), the U.S. (0.54) and Canada (0.53), do well on account of high perceived health and larger homes (rooms per person). Denmark, while scoring high (0.45), lags behind the U.S., in part because of more expensive housing and less wealth.

The U.S.’s well-being score is bolstered by the fact that it far surpasses all other OECD nations in income and wealth measures. The only country to come even close to the U.S. when looking at wealth is Switzerland, and even it falls well short. However, in terms of jobs, the U.S. lags comparatively in one important well-being factor: time off.

This is not a problem for the French. Across the countries where time off is measured, France has the highest score (2.20). France finds itself in the middle of the pack (overall 0.18) on many other factors, contributing to its close to average well-being score.

Other middle of the road well-being scores occur in places like Japan (0.16), South Korea (-0.23) and Israel (-0.23). In these countries, they might score noticeably high or low in a few categories, but, overall, come up about average.

For example, South Korea lags behind due in part to the low score it gets for perceived health and social support. Only 35% of Koreans say their health is “good” or “very good,” and 72% believe that they know someone they could rely on in times of need, the lowest such score across OECD countries. But Koreans do score very high on education and housing affordability.

Many Southern and Eastern European countries find themselves slightly below the OECD average on overall well-being. For Southern Europe, that’s partly because of low scores in educational attainment and employment, and for Eastern Europe, lower income and life expectancy play a factor.

In Hungary, life expectancy is a large factor to its relatively low well-being score. Hungarians live an average of 75 years, nearly five years lower than the OECD average. Hungarians are also one of the grumpier countries in the OECD, with a life satisfaction grade of 4.9 out of 10, much lower than the average OECD grade of 6.6.

But the bottom of the list includes poorer emerging economies, such as Turkey (-1.27) and Mexico (-1.48).

Turkey’s score is hurt by a variety of factors, such as a high percentage of people working more than 50 hours per week (41%) and basic sanitation (relative score of -3.34). But it is important to remember that Turkey is an emerging economy: While economic circumstances aren’t the only factors affecting happiness, people in richer nations, on average, report being happier.

Mexico ranks even lower, partially because of the high crime rates in the country. With 12.8% of people in Mexico saying they’ve been assaulted or mugged in the past year, and a homicide rate of 23.4 per 100,000 people, fixing the nation’s violent crime issue would be a big step to improving the country’s overall well-being. Still, other factors, such as poor education and low social support, keep Mexico on the bottom of the index.

Well being and quality of life remain nebulous and often complex issues to work on, but overall, most of the developed world — if not most of the world as a whole — is moving in the right direction, minus a few key weaknesses or regressions in one or a few indicators. It is clear to most individuals (as well as governments) across different cultures and societies that safety, security, health, income, social support, and leisure are all critical elements in living the good life. As long as at least some of these needs are met, most people will get by — though it is not always so simple.

Given that some of the richest countries in the world top the list, it is clear that a society’s overall wealth — which allows access to, and investment in, things like clinics, schools, businesses, etc. — underpins and enhances most of the indicators of well being.  Money can indeed buy happiness, but for individuals and societies, but only up to a point — fairly wealthy countries like Japan and South Korea did not fare too well in the Better Life Index, especially with regards to the “squishier” factors like social support and life satisfaction (which are harder to quantify than life expectancy and income).

Nevertheless, an increasing amount of data is revealing a consistent pattern of what constitutes the good life for the average person, regardless of culture or religion. Obviously, certain individual and societal differences remain, as Pew uncovered, but the general picture seems clear.

What are your thoughts?

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