It’s official: If you lived in Australia, you’d be much happier. According to the 2013 Better Life Index from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, Australia is the happiest country in the world for the third year running.
Among other qualities, Australians live two years longer than the OECD average of 82 and have low unemployment rates, with more than 73 percent of people aged 15 to 64 earning wages, well above the OECD average of 66 percent. They also work about 83 hours less per year than the global average yet have a much higher household disposable income at $28,884.
Edmund McCombs moved to Sydney from Pensacola, Fla., three years ago and said one of the first things he remembers after he arrived was a national campaign encouraging people to take a vacation. “I feel like we would never see that in the U.S.,” he recalled. “Australia is a big beacon for the world to take a look at now. Healthcare is free, women receive up to a year off of work when they have a baby and the work-life balance far exceeds what you’d find in the U.S.”
Australia was the only developed nation of size to avoid the 2008 global recession, thanks in no small part to its key ties with China and a mining boom that has fueled economic growth of about 3.5 percent each year for the past 20 years. The Australian dollar currently hovers at around a one-to-one ratio with the U.S. dollar, while its citizens earn a minimum wage that’s, on average, more than double that of American workers.
Just below Australia at the top of the index, which compared the respective qualities of 36 nations, were Sweden and Canada. Sweden earned excellent scores for the environment, education, life satisfaction and civic engagement, while Canada earned high marks for housing, health and safety. Interestingly, all three countries atop the Better Life Index had considerable gaps between rich and poor, with the top 20 percent earning between four and six times as much as the bottom 20 percent.
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Rounding out the top 10 on the list, in order, were Norway, Switzerland, the U.S., Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland and the United Kingdom. Mexico and Turkey came in last, far below the next closest countries, Chile, Brazil and Russia.
Since launching the Better Life Index in 2011, the OECD has shed light on global policies that are key drivers of individual and collective well-being. Researchers at the Paris-based organization look at 11 areas each year that have been identified as essential to happiness and well-being, from health and education to local government, personal security and overall satisfaction with life, as well as more traditional measures like income.
“Our Better Life Index goes beyond the cold, hard numbers of GDP to really get an understanding about what matters for people and about what they want and need out of their lives and their societies,” explained OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “I’m delighted that we continue to update it with new information and in new languages so that we can get a truly global picture of well-being, reflecting people’s preferences and needs, wherever and whomever they are.”
OECD’s findings complement research from other outlets in the relatively new and somewhat controversial field of “happiness economics.” Last April, world leaders gathered for a high-level event at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, hosted by the tiny Himalaya kingdom of Bhutan, to look at the happiest countries in the world and discuss how to put happiness on the global agenda.
At the heart of the discussion in Turtle Bay was a need to change the way nations are judged, moving away from a strictly GDP-based approach to one of happiness or well-being. In other words, nations should been seen as succeeding not if citizens are well off financially but rather if they’re healthy and happy.
Indeed, the debate is growing over how to best set public policy to boost well-being. But putting metrics to the intangible idea is a matter up for debate. Take, for example, two recent reports on happiness:
In a December Gallup poll measuring positive emotions across 148 countries, nations in Latin America accounted for seven of the top 10. The data-based World Happiness Report delivered to the U.N. last April, however, did not include a single Latin American nation in the top 10, but rather a collection of wealthy Northern European countries, plus New Zealand and Australia.
While researchers may disagree about which nations are the leaders, they all agree that happiness is on the rise. They also agree that happiness, no matter how overly idealistic it sounds, needs to be used as a measure of a successful government.