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The 6 Happiest (and Saddest) Countries in the World

So much for money being everything. For decades, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) leaned on Gross Domestic Product as a central measure of the relative well-being of its member countries. The basic idea was: Find the countries with the best economies and figure that's home to the happiest citizens. Pinpoint the economic laggards and you've got the saddest.

No more. As the OECD puts it: "In recent years, concerns have emerged regarding the fact that macro-economic statistics did not portray the right image of what ordinary people perceived about the state of their own lives. Addressing these concerns is crucial, not just for the credibility and accountability of public policies, but for the very functioning of our democracies." In other words, money isn't all it takes.

Toward a Better Measure of What Makes for a Better Life
To help it get a handle on what matters to us ordinary people, the OECD has launched its Better Life Initiative to get at the notion of well-being via a mix of economic and social factors. And in a move that gets my vote as one of the better crowd-sourcing initiatives, it is asking all of us to vote on what factors we think are more, or less, important when assessing overall well-being.

The OECD's just-released Better Life Index is an interactive tool that asks you to create a personalized ranking based on how important 11 different broad subject areas are to you: Housing, Income, Jobs, Community, Education, Environment, Governance, Health, Life Satisfaction, Safety, Work-Life Balance. Note that most of these have nothing to do with straight-up financial issues.

When you head over to the OECD site to create your own personal "Best Places to Live" list, the OECD will be collecting data on the weightings chosen by us ordinary folk. (Don't worry, no registration is necessary and the OECD is clear it is respecting privacy here). The idea is for all of us to give the OECD some insights into what we think does and doesn't matter when it comes to defining the "good life." The OECD is effectively trying to get some consensus on what it recognizes is a very subjective process. So for anyone who's ever had one of those "If I ran the world, I'd..." moments, well, here's your chance to have at least a little say. The OECD plans to share its findings with us later this year.

Happiest and Saddest Countries: A Starting Point
As a starting point, I came up with lists of the happiest and saddest countries in the world by looking at supporting data from the OECD showing how often each country appeared in the top or bottom 20 percent across 21 different areas (these 21 areas were rolled up into the 11 broad categories mentioned above).

A couple of important caveats. Right now the OECD database only includes 34 developed nations. So no China, Brazil, India, Russia or other emerging economies. And no Bhutan, whose King long ago declared "gross national happiness is more important than gross national product. " The OECD says it plans to add in major emerging countries later this year.

Another limitation is the data available to the OECD in each of the 21 specific areas it is tracking. Some data is great, others less so. The OECD will be upgrading its data as it becomes available. Think of this as Better Life 1.0.

The Happiest Countries
1. Australia (Scored in top 20 percent in 11 of 21 sub topics)

1. Canada (11 of 21)

3. New Zealand (9 of 21)

4. Denmark (8 of 21)

4. Norway (8 of 21)

4. Sweden (8 of 21)

So much for long cold winters being a downer; four of those six are not exactly beach-front destinations. And let's hear it for the Commonwealth: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand take gold, silver, and bronze in these rankings (by comparison, the mother country, the United Kingdom, managed to score in the top 20 percent on just 4 of the 21 factors).

Now onto the countries that landed in the bottom 20 percent the most often.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Phillie Casablanca
Next: Saddest Countries

Saddest Countries
Here are the countries that scored in the bottom 20 percent most often in the 21 topics included in the OECD's Better Life Index:

1. Estonia (13)

2. Mexico (11)

3. Turkey (11)

4. Hungary (9)

5. Poland (9)

6. Slovak Republic (9)

Where in the World Is the United States?
Well, we landed in the top 20 percent on six of the 21 measures, so not too shabby (the six were household disposable income, household net worth, self-reported health status, educational attainment, voter turn-out, and self-reported victimization). When an equal weight is given to the 11 broad categories, the U.S.comes in 7th:


But that's just a starting point. Go give the OECD Better Life Index a spin and report back below in the comments how your own Best Countries list plays out based on your personal weightings of what matters most to you.

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