How the Scandinavians (and Swiss) got to be so “on the ball” — and how we can be, too

Or a very satisfied land, anyway.

Or a very satisfied land, anyway.

One thing I found fascinating about overhearing British conversations during my visit to the U.K. in April 2013 was how it all ranged from the absolutely sublime to the highly sophisticated, often with just the right amount of snark thrown in for good measure.

One such conversation, overheard while walking just ahead of two City financial types on the south bank of the Thames concerned how impressed one of them was with how efficiently everything seems to work in the Scandinavian countries. After talking about everything from health care to the transportation systems, he summed it all up with, “The Scandinavians are always so fucking on-the-ball about everything!”

He might have been on to something there. Of the top 10 countries in the 2012 Human Development Index, two were Scandinavian: Norway at #1 and Sweden at #7, with Denmark being not too far behind at #15. (Finland, while Nordic, is technically not a Scandinavian country as Finns are historically, linguistically and culturally more closely related to the Estonians to their south, and even to the Hungarians, than to their neighbours to the west.) The Scandinavians are also perennial strong performers in the Global Peace Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard, the Corruption Perceptions Index and The Economist‘s annual ranking of the world’s best countries for a child to be born into.

One should also mention the Swiss as having mastered the art of running a country as a well-oiled machine (aside from the occasional accusation of racial intolerance), as the small Alpine country routinely finishes in the Top 10 of all of the indices listed above.

Now add a new honour for these countries.

For years, governments and the bodies that advise them on public policy, such as the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have been accused of putting economic indicators ahead of basic quality of life concerns. So, the OECD has started tracking overall quality of life among its member-states, by adding a Better Life Index table of indicators to its statistical portal, under the “Social Protection and Well-being” section.

Included in the Better Life Index is a Life Satisfaction score for each member-state, based on the average score given when residents are asked to rate their quality of life on a scale of zero to 10. While Canada ranks well at 7.4, placing our country in a tie with Austria and Finland, the top rankings were dominated by Switzerland (7.8), Norway (7.7), Iceland and Sweden (both 7.6) and Denmark and the Netherlands (both 7.5). (Mexico’s 7.3 is admittedly strange.)

Average life satisfaction score by country. Click to enlarge. (Source: OECD)

Average life satisfaction score by country. Click to enlarge. (Source: OECD)

How does a country position itself closer to a perfect, if elusive, “10 out of 10” rating? A regression analysis, showing how much of a country’s outcome in the Life Satisfaction score can be explained by each of the other variables in the Better Life Index, suggests that the easy availability of employment for all has a strong effect on perceived quality of life, with half of the difference between countries being explained by the employment rate, and nearly 40 percent of the difference being explained by the long-term unemployment rate.

Curiously, how the public perceives the quality of their local water appears to be closely related to how satisfied they are with their lives, suggesting that water quality can be a tell-tale sign of how well or poorly run a city, country, province or state is.

Percentage of difference between countries' life satisfaction scores that can be explained by performance in selected areas. Click to enlarge. (Based on OECD core countries' data.)

Percentage of difference between countries’ life satisfaction scores that can be explained by performance in selected areas. Click to enlarge. (Based on OECD core countries’ data.)

As first noted in a 2010 post, health and household finances once again appear to be important factors in human life satisfaction. How healthy people felt explained 38 percent of the difference in overall life satisfaction scores between countries, while personal earnings and household disposable income each explained about a third of the differences. Living in less crowded accommodations, at least in terms of number of rooms per person, appeared to also play a role in boosting quality of life, as did the availability of all basic household facilities.

Interestingly, household net financial wealth appeared to be less important than personal earnings and disposable income in boosting life satisfaction.

In the wider community, having a strong support network — as measured by the question, “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” — appeared to make life more satisfactory. Yet other measures of civic engagement such as voter turnout, amount of leisure time or consultation on rule-making appeared to be less important to overall life satisfaction.

Perhaps unexpectedly, four factors appeared to have virtually no impact on overall life satisfaction: the country’s homicide rate, job security beyond a six-month time span, the cost of housing, and the country’s assault rate — each explaining less than one percent of the difference between countries in overall life satisfaction.

Out of curiosity, I also compared the OECD core countries’ life satisfaction scores to two favourite variables of mine: each country’s performance in the Corruption Perceptions Index and the percentage of seats in the lower house of parliament held by women. Sure enough, the perceived openness and honesty of government explained about 45 percent of the difference between countries in terms of how citizens rate their quality of life, while the percentage of seats held by women explained about 36 percent of the difference.

This suggests that running a cleaner, more open and more predictable administration is one of the best things a government can do to boost citizens’ quality of life, and that voting in a different demographic can be just as important for bringing about change as voting in a different party.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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