Who's happiest?

Ireland wins the world contest for best quality of life, while the U.S. slips to 13th place.

By Owen Bowcott
Published November 18, 2004 8:26PM (UTC)
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Ireland is easily the best country in the world to inhabit, according to a quality-of-life survey that relegates Britain to a second-division ranking. The ambitious attempt to compare happiness around the world is based on the principle that wealth is not the only measure of human satisfaction.

The index of 111 states, produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit and released Wednesday, combines data on incomes, health, unemployment, climate, political stability, job security, gender equality and what the magazine calls "freedom, family and community life."


Displayed on a notional scale of one to 10, rain-washed Ireland emerges with a gleaming top score of 8.33, well ahead of second-place Switzerland, which manages 8.07. The U.K. languishes in 29th place on 6.92, narrowly in front of South Korea (6.88). Zimbabwe, racked by political insecurity and hunger, is rated the gloomiest, picking up only 3.89 points. The figures may be reminiscent of a global version of the Eurovision Song Contest, but the intention behind the study -- to find the best country to live in during 2005 -- is serious as well as competitive.

"Although rising incomes and expanded individual choices are highly valued," the report says, "some of the factors associated with modernization -- such as the breakdown of traditional institutions and the erosion of family values -- in part offset its positive impact. "Ireland wins because it successfully combines the most desirable elements of the new (the fourth highest gross domestic product per head in the world in 2005, low unemployment, political liberties) with the preservation of certain cozy elements of the old, such as stable family and community life."

Ireland's lifestyle victory represents rapid promotion for a country that until the 1990s suffered from large-scale emigration of citizens in search of work abroad. Membership in the European Union has, however, transformed its prospects. Ireland's GDP per person -- a standard, comparative economic measure -- overtook the U.K.'s several years ago: Ireland's is now $36,790, compared with $31,150 in the U.K. The U.K.'s reputation in Europe also takes a beating. The U.K. ranked the lowest out of the 15 members of the pre-enlargement E.U., chiefly due to the high rates of social and family breakdown recorded in official statistics.


Britain's other large European partners, such as France and Germany, occupying 25th and 26th positions respectively, fared little better. But smaller states, including Sweden, Italy, Denmark and Spain, all appeared in the top 10. The U.S., which has the second-highest GDP after diminutive Luxembourg, slipped to 13th place in the survey. Other big economies did even worse. China was in the lower half of the league at 60th, while Russia, where GDP is only $9,810, scraped in toward the bottom at 105th.

"The results of the surveys have been attracting growing interest in recent years," the magazine says. "It has long been accepted that material well-being alone does not adequately measure quality of life. Money matters, of course, but surveys suggest that over the decades big increases in income have translated into only a modest rise in satisfaction."

The Economist's complex equations used to produce the table gave most weight to matters of health, well-being, political stability and security. Less importance was attached to climate, job security, political freedom and gender equality. The Economist's survey, published as "The World in 2005," is in its 17th year.


Other organizations have tried to draw up comparative tables based simply on more subjective surveys about happiness. The results do not reflect the Economist's priorities. The New Scientist magazine last year published a survey that ranked Nigeria as having the highest percentage of people who said they were happy, followed by Mexico and Venezuela. The citizens of Russia, Armenia and Romania were the most miserable.

Owen Bowcott

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