The Countries With the Highest Well-Being

It is safe to say that most people want greater well-being in their lives, but as with concepts like happiness or success, it is often loaded and subjective — albeit up to a point. Wealth is certainly a big factor, if not the biggest, but so are — generally speaking — civil rights, a healthy environment, personal safety, and social support.

Predicating well-being on these and other inputs, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) conducted the “Sustainable Economic Development Assessment” (SEDA), which measures which countries in the world provide the most well-being to their inhabitants. The results were based on over 50,000 data points spanning three broad metrics and ten “dimensions of well-being”: economics (which includes income, economic stability, and employment); investment (health, education, and infrastructure) and sustainability (socioeconomic inequality, civil society, governance, and environment).

As The Economist points out, the countries with the highest SEDA score (as of 2015), are familiar to anyone who has ever looked at similar research such as the Human Development Index or the Legatum Prosperity Index — Norway tops the list with a maximum score of 100, as it has since the report was first done in 2012. Other Scandinavian and northern European countries closely follow, along with Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The U.S. is a middling 19th place, due mostly to poor performance in inequality, health, and education.

It is no surprise that the wealthiest countries offer the greatest well-being, since money can in fact buy you most of the other factors, such as education, healthcare, a nicer environment, etc.

But it also matters how the wealth is allocated and utilized: rich societies that invest in world-class infrastructure, or that promote a healthier environment, will do better than those that do not; a country can be wealthy in its totality but have much of its population locked out of the benefits of that wealth. Using a nation’s wealth to increase access to education, healthcare, and steady work — be it through public policy or through a social contract between workers and employers — means giving more people the opportunity to realize their full potential, which I’d argue is a significant component of well-being.

The SEDA report sort of touches on this by also measuring “financial inclusion” — the proportion of individuals age 15 or older with a formal bank account — against each country’s SEDA score. The results show a clear correlation between financial inclusion (i.e., access to financial resources) and higher well-being.

Granted, there are probably some cultural differences being overlooked here. Different societies put greater weight on some factors of well-being versus others. Civil society may not matter as much in political cultures lacking democratic norms and traditions. Many of the countries that rank highest in happiness or life satisfaction, such as frequent top performer Colombia, are fairly poor, unequal, and/or wracked by civil strife. Attitudes, values, and social norms clearly count for a lot when it comes to well-being, and how they interact with mores substantive factors like income and stability will also vary from time and place. Moreover, such nebulous factors are difficult to quantify and measure, not that the effort should not be made.

What are your thoughts?

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