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The happiest countries? Balance matters more than money

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Switzerland ranks No. 1 in the "life satisfaction" category of the latest Better Life Index. Pictured is Geneva.

You might not think it from listening to politicians, but the United States is one of the happiest places on Earth.

In fact, according to this year’s Better Life Index, released Tuesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is the sixth-happiest of the 36 countries rated, falling just behind such perennially cheerful nations as Sweden and Australia, which grabbed the top spot.

If money were the key to happiness, America would be No. 1 based on its top ranking for disposable income and total household wealth. But that’s not the only thing that matters.

The Paris-based OECD says that gross domestic product, often used to measure a country’s success, isn’t a sufficient indicator of people’s sense of well-being. So the organization takes 11 factors into account, including security, work-life balance, environment and housing.

The U.S. ranks sixth with all 11 factors weighted equally. But if you give the most weight to the elusive “life satisfaction” category, northern European countries are atop, with Switzerland, Norway and Sweden taking the top three spots and the U.S. dropping to 12th.

Work-life balance? Denmark, Norway and Sweden come out on top, and the U.S. is a middling 15th.

Romina Boarini, the OECD’s head of monitoring well-being and progress, sees a pattern in the data. The countries that do best are not only the richest, they’re often the ones that have the smallest gaps between the rich and poor.

Significant inequalities in such areas as health, education and housing can have a major impact, she said.

“We actually see that the lower the social gaps are, the higher the average well-being outcomes,” Boarini said.

The OECD’s study documentation notes that the U.S. has “a considerable gap between the richest and the poorest – the top 20 percent of the population earn approximately eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent.”

Many of the happiest countries overall also score well in work-life balance, which Boarini finds unsurprising.

“People need not just to have money,” she said. “They need to have different things in life. What is important for them is to have sort of a balance. Perhaps it’s better to sacrifice a little bit of income to have a little bit more [in terms of] friends and community.”

Not that she dismisses the value of money. The top-ranked countries tend to have healthy, well-developed economies, leaving them better able to invest in health and education, both of which are critical factors when it comes to a sense of well-being, she said.

Countries that rank at the bottom of the list tend to have weaker economies, with their citizens suffering high unemployment, social problems such as high crime, and little feeling of connection with their governments.

In virtually every category, Turkey and Mexico are at the bottom of the list, and Chile, Brazil and Russia aren’t far ahead.

When it comes to being satisfied with life, however, Mexico, Brazil and Chile climb, leaving Turkey at the bottom, trailing Hungary, Greece, Portugal, Estonia and Russia.

Boarini said one thing she has learned in studying the data is that “there is no unique recipe.”

“It’s not just having one thing that makes your happiness. It’s a combination,” she said. “And you need a little bit of all those things to be OK.”

She added that the Better Life Index sends a “strong message” to member nations: “Target people’s happiness. It’s more about creating the conditions for people to find their own way to a happy life.”