How do people value a better life? The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently released the Better Life Index, an interactive graphic that lets you rank 11 different dimensions (income, environment, life satisfaction, etc.) to see how different countries perform, and then "share" your ranking. Since it launched a few months ago, the OECD has been collecting data about what different people who visit the website rank as the most important values to a better life.
One might expect to see people prefer dimensions that reflect the country they live in. For example, people who live in safe countries might value safety because it is an ingrained cultural norm – so they rank it higher. Alternatively, one might expect to see people prefer dimensions that their country is lacking. For example, people who live in countries with poor access to healthcare might prioritize health – so they rank it higher.
So which is it – do your ideas of the better life emerge because or despite of the country you live in? Turns out, the data shows neither pattern consistently.
With a few exceptions, people across the globe have generally similar preferences, despite the fact that their countries score very differently on particular dimensions. For example, people from Turkey and the United States rank work-life balance, housing and jobs almost identically, yet their countries score very differently of those dimensions (the US scores a 9.3 out of 10 for housing, while Turkey is the lowest scoring country at 0). Estonians and Japanese are the top two highest rankers of safety, yet their countries are complete opposites on those dimensions: Estonia is the third least safe nation in the OECD, while Japan is the safest. Finally, Hungarians and Australians are the top two highest rankers of life satisfaction, yet their countries score completely differently: Australia gets a 9 out of 10 for life satisfaction, while Hungary is the least happy nation in the OECD.
If OECD scores don't seem to correlate consistently to preferences, what about culture? Do countries with different cultural attitudes have different Better Life preferences? Again, the data seems to suggest not. For example, French and Americans show a very similar pattern of preferences, ranking life satisfaction highest, then health, then education, and other dimensions in a relatively similar way. However, French and American cultures differ dramatically on these same dimensions.
"The French think access to health and education are basic human rights, which should be universally accessible, regardless of one's financial means," says Sabine Levet, a French professor at the MIT. "Therefore the French consider the role of the government essential in these areas."
On the other hand, those same attitudes in the United States might be seen as "socialist," allowing too much government interference and limiting people's freedom.
Similarly for safety. In France, it is considered extreme to be pro-death penalty or strongly support the right to bear arms, while in the US those positions are much more acceptable.
Neither OECD scores nor cultural attitudes seem to correlate consistently with Better Life preferences. What else could be driving the global similarities in preferences?
According to Jerome Cukier, a data editor at the OECD, language may be a strong influence on the preference trends. Governance was ranked consistently lowest, but that may be because not everyone understands what governance means, according to Cukier.
"If we had called it, say, 'democracy', maybe it would have scored better," he says. The same may be true for the dimension of income, which was chosen instead of an alternative word like "money" or "material conditions".
"There are some people who could say, 'money is important to me', or 'money is not important to me,' who wouldn't feel the same about something more abstract like income, " says Cukier.
Additionally, the entire study was conducted in English (the OECD is currently working on several translations), which likely had some influence. If even native English speakers understand words like "community" or "safety" in multiple ways, no doubt speakers of another languages introduce their own nuances and understandings to those same words.
Finally, it may be that the kinds of people who fill out these surveys (educated, with access to a computer) have similar preferences. That might explain why education ranked so highly.
In the end, the Better Life Index project may raise more questions than it answers about the driving forces behind people's preferences. It certainly challenges the assumption that a country's circumstances would determine the preferences of its inhabitants. With more qualitative data about why thousands of people made the choices they did, we can hopefully illuminate the undoubtedly complex relationship between where you live and the life you prefer.
Special thanks to Jerome Cukier for all his help sorting the OECD data.