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Is Australia really the happiest country in the world?

Slow down, Aussies: Australia certainly has plenty to be happy about, but the OECD’s new Better Life Index didn’t just declare living in the Land Down Under the best lifestyle in the world. Still, you wouldn’t know that from this week’s headlines, which include, "Australia Tops List of Happiest Countries," "Australia Tops OECD Better Life ...

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Slow down, Aussies: Australia certainly has plenty to be happy about, but the OECD's new Better Life Index didn't just declare living in the Land Down Under the best lifestyle in the world. Still, you wouldn't know that from this week's headlines, which include, "Australia Tops List of Happiest Countries," "Australia Tops OECD Better Life Index, Leading Sweden, Canada," "Australia is the happiest industrialised nation. But are you happy?" and the self-congratulatory "Australia: Happy is as happy does."

You can chalk the misunderstanding up to lies, damn lies, and subjective statistics. Apparently, news outlets missed the part in the index's FAQs where, in answer to the question "Which country is #1?," the OECD explicitly states, "The OECD has not assigned rankings to countries."

It's easy to see how the report could be misleading. The Better Life Index ranks the quality of life in OECD countries based on 11 categories of metrics -- housing (including data on "rooms per person," "dwellings with basic facilities," and "housing expenditure"); environment ("air pollution" and "water quality"); and work-life balance ("employees working very long hours" and "time devoted to leisure and personal care"), among others. The default index (shown below) weights each of these 11 categories equally, and Australia does rise to the top of the list. But the OECD's goal is to learn what quality-of-life indicators matter to you.

Slow down, Aussies: Australia certainly has plenty to be happy about, but the OECD’s new Better Life Index didn’t just declare living in the Land Down Under the best lifestyle in the world. Still, you wouldn’t know that from this week’s headlines, which include, "Australia Tops List of Happiest Countries," "Australia Tops OECD Better Life Index, Leading Sweden, Canada," "Australia is the happiest industrialised nation. But are you happy?" and the self-congratulatory "Australia: Happy is as happy does."

You can chalk the misunderstanding up to lies, damn lies, and subjective statistics. Apparently, news outlets missed the part in the index’s FAQs where, in answer to the question "Which country is #1?," the OECD explicitly states, "The OECD has not assigned rankings to countries."

It’s easy to see how the report could be misleading. The Better Life Index ranks the quality of life in OECD countries based on 11 categories of metrics — housing (including data on "rooms per person," "dwellings with basic facilities," and "housing expenditure"); environment ("air pollution" and "water quality"); and work-life balance ("employees working very long hours" and "time devoted to leisure and personal care"), among others. The default index (shown below) weights each of these 11 categories equally, and Australia does rise to the top of the list. But the OECD’s goal is to learn what quality-of-life indicators matter to you.

The Better Life Index, in other words, is designed to be toyed with. The OECD’s interactive chart allows you to weight the metrics to your liking and then compare your index to those of others. As of right now, the average user-submitted weighted index emphasizes education, health, and life satisfaction, and deemphasizes civic engagement, bumping Switzerland up a notch to the happiest country, narrowly beating out Canada, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Australia. That could change, though, as more people submit their weighted indices. You can make your own index here.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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