The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has just released the third iteration of its Better Life index with a fantastic data visualization tool that allows you to compare the 34 existing member countries based on 11 different indicators of human well-being: material conditions including housing, income, and jobs and quality of life conditions including community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. The purpose of this project is to get direct input from citizens across the globe about what matters most them to them in terms of their own lives and, subsequently, to relay this information to leaders to help shape policy decisions.
More than 2 million people from 196 countries have participated in this project so far. Across all nations, three variables have stood out above others as the most important factors contributing to well-being according to the project participants since 2011: life satisfaction, health, and education. These three variables also emerged as most important to participants from the United States.
Interestingly, when you maximize the importance of these three variables above all others, Sweden and Switzerland emerge on top of the international heap, followed by Canada, Australia, and Norway. The United States itself is in the top half of the distribution based on these three variables, scoring better than some European nations like Spain and France but not as high others like Denmark and the Netherlands. Notably, poor Turkey –- now experiencing major protests over living conditions under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Erdogan –- is practically off the cliff in terms of well-being, scoring dead last when looking at life satisfaction, education, and health.
This exercise broadly tracks other what other indicators of social and environmental well-being, particularly the Social Progress Index developed and promoted by the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship. Looking across a range of measures, Sweden, the U.K., and Switzerland emerge on top in terms of social progress with the US in the upper reaches:
Overall, you get the sense from these indices that the United States is a great place to live as compared to many other countries in the world. But on things that really matter to Americans, like life satisfaction, education, health, and work-life balance, as well as metrics of inequality and opportunity, our nation could do a much better job of aligning preferences and policies to produce better lives for all our citizens.
This raises the question of how progressives can shift public discourse towards a wider focus on human well-being, particularly during a period of ongoing economic distress. The burgeoning “Beyond GDP” movement in the U.S. and Europe is attempting to challenge the notion that economic growth alone is a sufficient measure of progress. Lew Daly and Stephen Posner, in their overview of the movement, note that while “between 1980 and 2010, real GDP more than doubled,” that hardly captures the full reality of the situation.
“Across the 2000s, there was no net job creation, median family income declined, and $15 trillion in household wealth was lost, the sharpest such decline in 50 years,” they write. “Poverty is rising, and health gains have stalled and even regressed in many communities — the cost of obesity in America is closing in on $300 billion annually. American students are falling behind their peers in Europe and Asia, and for the first time in polling history, a majority of American parents do not believe that their children will fare better than they did.”
As important as economic growth is to progressive ambitions, it is clear that our understanding of growth must be expanded to include more realistic measures of the benefits and costs of growth in terms of individual and community well-being. This will require more formalized steps to include alternative indicators into U.S. policy-making, a step the EU and some member nations have taken in recent years. But it will also require progressive activists to make the concept of well-being for all people a core part of our overall vision for society and the basis for specific policies on poverty, environmental protection, inequality, education and health care.