After the World Cup, what shapes well-being for your country?

BY Simone Pathe  July 4, 2014 at 5:00 PM EST
What's most important to your well-being? The OECD is recording responses from citizens around the world about what's most important to them in their countries. Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

What’s most important to your well-being? The OECD is recording responses from citizens around the world about what’s most important to them in their countries. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

American goalie Tim Howard might not have saved the U.S. from World Cup elimination, but on this Independence Day, Americans’ attentions have returned to what really matters: Barbecuing, the beach and a three-day weekend.

And that makes sense, given what Americans say is most important for their well-being: life satisfaction and work-life balance rank among the highest factors according to averaged U.S. responses to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index.

The index asks users to rate 11 topics on a sliding scale of importance to their well-being. They are (from highest to lowest importance for the average American respondent): life satisfaction, health, education, work-life balance, the environment, safety, jobs, income, housing, community and civic engagement. After you’ve rated the topics, the index generates a spectrum of countries whose average achievements in each dimension match your priorities. In the example below, Australia is the best match. Hover over the flower to see how each country performs on each of the 11 topics, which correspond to the flowers’ petals.

The OECD evaluates the data for its 34 member countries (plus Russia and Brazil) to compare how each nation scores on each topic, but it’s up to individual citizens to decide the order of importance of each topic for their own well-being.

The OECD launched the original Better Life Index in 2011, but it’s been using the World Cup and the launch of its Portuguese version last month, with an endorsement from Pele no less, to sell the index to a wider audience. The more people who contribute to the index, the better it becomes because more responses mean country averages for each topic will be more accurate. This is the first year those responses are available as part of the index.

“There’s more to life than football,” the slogan the OECD has been using to market the effort, captures the core idea behind the Better Life Index. It’s designed for when, as the OECD’s director of public affairs Anthony Gooch writes, “the final whistle blows, the game is over and the crowds go home.” When the rush of the game is over, what really matters?

So, yes, America, we may have lost, but there’s more to life than football. Get over it and get barbecuing.

When the Crowds Go Home

Besides that consolation message, the index, and that slogan, may also provoke a more serious and unbiased conversation about what really matters in each society beyond sports.

The OECD has a history of looking at “the day after” major sporting events. In 2010, they released a report that looked forward at the 2012 Olympics’ legacy for East London. Brazil is not an official member of the OECD, but as one of the four “BRIC” nations whose economies are fast growing, it’s a country of focus for the OECD.

With ascending lower-middle and middle classes, Gooch said, Brazilians paying taxes are realizing there are services they need and want that are still out of reach.

Pew survey on Brazil

If there’s more to life than football, is there more to life than hosting the World Cup? Gooch cited a Pew survey that found 60 percent of Brazilians thought it a “bad thing” for their country to host the soccer tournament because it takes money away from public services. A Gallup poll released Friday found a similar majority expecting the World Cup to hurt their economy. As of May, Brazil had spent the equivalent of more than $11 billion on stadiums, airports and other infrastructure upgrades.

Even Pele thought that was too much. “It’s clear that, politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot. And in some cases more than it should have been,” he said at a talk in Mexico City in May.

Here’s a look at what matters most to Brazilians, according to the average responses to the Better Life Index.

Participants in the Better Life Index from Brazil have ranked, on average, education the most important and  civic engagement the least important to their well-being. Click on the image to read more about responses from across the world.

Participants in the Better Life Index from Brazil have ranked, on average, education the most important and civic engagement the least important to their well-being. Click on the image to read more about responses from across the world.

Disengaged Citizens?

Brazilians may have protested the World Cup, but so far, they’ve listed civic engagement as least important to their well-being in the index. And on this July 4, it’s notable that Americans put civic engagement at the bottom of the list, too.

The OECD measures civic engagement by voter turnout, but what drives that participation, even if it is compulsory voting, the OECD cautions, is not accounted for. Likewise, the index considers the transparency and the existence of official consultation processes in law-making, but does not attempt to assess whether those processes are effective.

With voter turnout lower than the OECD average of 72 percent, America falls in about the middle of the pack in OECD measures of civic engagement. But speaking to Making Sen$e, Gooch cautioned not to read too much into the index about apathetic Americans; the very fact that Americans completed the index says something about their willingness to engage. In fact, Americans represent more than 25 percent of global visits to the site, said Gooch.

In Friday’s other match, France took on Germany. Here’s how respondents from those two countries rank their priorities for well-being. They, too, have listed civic engagement last.

According to the average of responses from France, health is the top priority, followed by life satisfaction. That order is reversed in Germany. Click on the image to read more about each countries' preferences from the OECD.

According to the average of responses from France, health is the top priority, followed by life satisfaction. That order is reversed in Germany. Click on the image to read more about each countries’ preferences from the OECD.

Better Measures

If the index is designed for a post-World Cup world, it’s also geared toward developing a post-financial crisis public policy, said Gooch. “By now, unfortunately,” he said, “everyone knows what credit default swaps and derivatives are because of the crisis.” This idea of giving citizens the agency to determine their own preference hierarchy is a departure for the OECD, which is known for dealing in what Gooch called “hardcore” figures in their economic outlooks.

But the Better Life Index is part of a growing recognition among institutions and governments that a single metric can’t tell a complete economic story. Consider the poverty rate, for example, the unemployment rate, or the Gross Domestic Product.

GDP measures the total value of goods and services produced within a country. But per capita income is not an accurate reflection of what the average person in a given country actually earns.

As “Leading Indicators” author Zachary Karabell explained to Making Sen$e earlier this year, “GDP has become the proxy of a national pecking order.”

Measuring quality of life, the OECD’s Gooch said, isn’t just about the economy. “It’s not what does it for people. Huge amounts of money have been spent very badly,” he said, just as “small amounts of money can go a long way if spent in a good way.”

And so all these metrics have inspired various alternatives (see our own more inclusive measure of the unemployed, the Solman Scale, for example). As an alternative to GDP, Bhutan uses a Gross National Happiness Index, and the state of Maryland has adopted the Genuine Progress Indicator, which takes into account environmental factors, leisure and housework.

But the OECD is careful to distinguish the Better Life Index from a happiness index, suggesting that theirs offers a more concrete assessment of people’s needs and desires, and not just their feelings. (For a look at the relationship between economic wealth and happiness, see Making Sen$e’s report on “What makes us happy?”)

Compiling any index, though, requires making choices about what to include and exclude. That’s the problem, Karabell said, with “one synthetic number that purports to describe lived reality with an average.”

So while citizens can decide which topics are most important to them in the Better Life Index, the OECD is forced to use country data that often includes averages or may be limited in scope.

For income, where the U.S. ranks at the top, the OECD examines household net adjusted disposable income and household net financial wealth. (Income inequality is not yet included in the index, but to see how the U.S. scores on that front, compared to the countries who defeated America in the World Cup, see NewsHour’s report on the OECD’s inequality and poverty data.)

The data for one of the most subjective dimensions, life satisfaction, comes from Gallup’s World Poll, where respondents rank their life satisfaction between relativized worst (one) and best (10) scenarios, which are then averaged.

And of course, the responses for each country are averaged, which reflects the self-selective pool that engages with the index. At the most basic level, responders have to have access to a computer and the Internet, speak one of the now six languages into which the index has been translated, and likely have heard of the OECD or at least encountered one of their promotions for the index.

In a sign of how well their index has been received at the policy level, Gooch said member states have been asking for the data to be incorporated in their economic outlooks. And the OECD has released a regional index that measures well-being on eight topics, allowing you to compare New York to Washington, DC, for example, or find regions in other countries that share similar well-being profiles.

So as the World Cup comes to a close, ask yourself, is there more to life than the Yankees? Or the Nationals?