Survey Says: Americans Wealthier, but Not Necessarily Happier

Libby Kane

Are Americans happier than citizens in other countries?

Well, it depends on how you measure happiness.

New research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that we’re ahead of the game when it comes to wealth, behind the curve when it comes to life expectancy—and wait till you hear how we stack up on work-life balance.

There are also at least three countries whose citizens profess to be happier than we are.

This data comes from the Better Life Index, a ranking system from the newly established OECD which measures happiness levels in 34 countries, based on how their citizens feel about things like earnings, housing, their community—and even how many good and bad things happen to them per day.

And the Better Life Index actually isn’t the first of its kind.

We’ll show you how the first “Happiness Index” came about–and how your life in the United States stacks up.

What Is a Happiness Index, Anyway?

The Gross National Happiness (GNH) index was developed in the 1970s by the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan (it’s half the size of Indiana) to inspire government initiatives that would improve its citizens’ lives.

The country’s index evaluates 33 indicators within nine larger categories like psychological wellbeing, living standards, education, health, ecological and cultural diversity and community vitality. It’s administered to all of Bhutan’s residents, even those living in the most remote areas.

Why a happiness index? Because GDP or gross domestic product—which typically measures a country’s rate of economic growth—doesn’t really tell you how that impacts the life of its citizens.

And once word got out that Bhutan had created a way to quantify happiness, other countries jumped on the GNH train.

In 2008, former French President Sarkozy instituted the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. In 2008, Victoria, British Columbia created the Greater Victoria Happiness Index Partnership. And most notably for us, last year the Paris-based OECD, developed the Better Life Index  to measure well-being in 34 countries.

So, Which Countries Are the Happiest, Wealthiest … and Busiest?

Don’t be too shocked: The United States isn’t the world’s happiest country. But it also isn’t the least. The OECD report found that:

  • The U.S ranks first in average household wealth (which measures not just income, but total worth of the household and its assets), at $102,000 a year, with only Switzerland, at $95,000, coming close. But the OECD reports that our gap between rich and poor also ranks relatively high, with the top 20% of the American population earning about eight times as much as the bottom 20%. (Interestingly, we hear that an income of $50,000 is the amount to make us happy.)
  • Americans are more satisfied with their lives than the OECD average, with 76% of people–compared with an average of 72%–saying they have more positive experiences in an average day (including feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment) than negative ones (including pain, worry, sadness, boredom). But we’re not the happiest: Denmark, Norway and Switzerland all outscored us on that front.
  • And we don’t live the longest: The OECD findings show we lag about a year behind the report’s average, with Americans living to 79 instead of 80.
  • Maybe it’s all that work we do? It may not come as a surprise that people in most countries report a better balance between their career and their personal lives than we do. On that front, Denmark, Belgium and Spain are the places to be. But if you just want to pack it in and enjoy a life of leisure, don’t head to Mexico, Turkey or Japan, who proved to be home to bigger workaholics than even us.
  • maracujation

    average household wealth in the US is $102,000? that seems a bit high to me…I wonder if their sample pool was a bit skewed…or is that really the average?

    • Stephanie

      It could very well be the actual average, especially since people who are very, very wealthy would skew the average higher.  (Basically a matter of the rich being richer than the poor are poor, if that makes sense?)  I’d bet the median household wealth is lower than this. 

    • LibbyKane

      Hi Maracujation and Stephanie: “Average household financial wealth” is OECD-speak for the financial worth of an entire household and its assets (we tweaked the language above to better reflect that). If your’e interested, you can read more here:

    • frank

       you would be correct – the average is indeed skewed by the billionaire 0.01% – apparently the US median (the mid-point of the population – half the people have more, half have less) household wealth dropped from 2007-2010 to $57k in 2010 dollars

      thought I read recently that the country with highest median household wealth was Australia at around $220k – but found this link indicating $426k !?!?.

  • Megan

    That’s it. I’m moving to Denmark. :-)

  • Renee

    “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner is a great book that discusses the levels of happiness in multiple countries.  The conclusion is pretty expected, but it’s a great reminder of the outlook we should have on life and what truly makes people happy. 

  • deskplant

    Some interesting US based statistics
    1) nearly 49.1% of the total US population receive some form of State Aid up from 30% in the early 1980′s
    2) More than 47 million Americans live below the poverty line
    3) Tent cities of homeless individuals and families (including graduates forced into destitution post 2008) have sprung up around more than 55 major cities in the US
    4) Unemployment is around 13 million, 3 million more than at the last election and the biggest ratio since the Great Depression
    5) Budget cuts are hitting poor families. Longer term this will increase destitution and grow the shanty towns further. Cuts are not just money for bills but subsidies on medical care, child care, education and training leading to less upward mobility opportunities for the lowest levels of society.

    I strongly recommend these links:

    Equally if you can find a copy of the documentary or the book: ‘The Shock Doctrine’ by Naomi Klein you will understand the major reasons behind the current financial crisis. Primarily it is because Milton Friedman’s policies were deployed post Reagan (MF’s ideology was also used in the UK by Margaret Thatcher and can be directly linked to the UK’s rapid decline). His objectives are achieved which are increases in economic inequality, minimal national assets, minimal regulations, corporate control through privatisation of nearly everything, including armies which the US was only a hair’s breadth from completing and is still working towards in Afghanistan where hundreds of millions of tax payer money has been handed to contractors for no actual results.

    In the Link 2 above, you will find a discussion on US statistics and it reveals (based on the first world free market economies of the US, UK, Canada, NZ, Australia, Japan and various countries in Europe and Scandanavia):
    1) the US has the greatest disparity between rich and poor anywhere in the free world (no doubt places like Saudi/India/Russia would be very high but they are behind as first world free market economies and they have no data available)
    2) The US tops the charts from the FWFME countries in: mental illness, infant mortality, homicides, inprisonment, teenage births, obesity, trust for others and Government, poor math and literacy skills in the population and the lowest chance of social mobility.
    I would therefore challenge the sample selection from this survey – who precisely did they ask? And it’s clear that this qualitative survey is subjective to a ridiculous degree. Every perspective of happy will differ, so what is the base line?

    I’m sorry this is long winded but I thought it a necessary alternate viewpoint.

  • deskplant

    The Shock Doctrine can be found at: Please ignore the very ignorant comments posted on this link. The UK’s people have long been aware, terrified and lost as Friedman economic policies ripped the UK apart dismantling much of the stable infrastructure that held the UK together as it was a socialist style system of government control, employment and support twinned successfully with democratic freedoms. Corporations were controlled. This is now almost fully reversed, as corporations see taxpayers as unlimited cash cows with the Government as the wholesaler. But they offer no transparency or accountability (see the Murdoch empire scandal now in the UK: Levenson Inquiry). The Friedman effect is why Keynesian economic objectives are being reexamined.