How do you measure quality of life? With difficulty

We always do well on these types of lists, the ones that rank countries on how desirable they are to live in.

International Living's ratings for New Zealand (0 = bad, 100 = good)
International Living's ratings for New Zealand (0 = bad, 100 = good)

Our pristine surroundings, moderate climate, low rate of crime and corruption, excellent health system, reasonable cost of living and lack of state oppression have helped put us at number 5 on International Living’s list of the most desirable countries to live in.

If you’re still chuckling incredulously after reading the list above, have a look at this Times column which reflects sardonically on Britain’s ranking of 25th on the list.

We are virtually at the bottom of the pile within Europe, despite having won the war etc. We are below even Belgium. How does that make you feel? It is like being told that Peter Andre has a higher IQ than yours.

It’s fair to say that these types of lists can carry a lot of weight with tourists and those considering a permanent move to a more civilised, less crowded country than their own. But how do you actually measure quality of life? What gives someone living in Auckland a vastly superior quality of life to someone living in Birmingham, but not as good a quality of life as someone residing in Adelaide?

Well, given we are halfway through our Summer of Stats series, its timely to have a look at the methodology behind the Quality of Life Index, to see what exactly it is that blesses us with a better quality of life than most people in the world enjoy.

International Living ranks quality of life according to a number of factors, with a weighting of 15 per cent respectively to cost of living and the economy. Helpfully, IL provides information on its methodology:

Cost of Living (15% of the final ranking). This is a guide to how much it will cost you to live in a style comparable to–or better than–the standard of living you’re likely enjoying in the U.S. Our primary source in this category is the U.S. State Department’s Index of Overseas Living Costs, used to compute cost-of-living allowances for a Western-style of living in various countries. We also consider each country’s income tax rates.

Culture and Leisure (10%). To calculate this score, we look at literacy rate, newspaper circulation per 1,000 people, primary and secondary school enrollment ratios, number of people per museum, and a subjective rating of the variety of cultural and recreational offerings.

Economy (15%). We consider interest rates, GDP, GDP growth rate, GDP per capita, the inflation rate, and GNP per capita to determine each country’s Economy score.

Environment (10%). To figure a country’s score in this category, we look at population density per square kilometer, population growth rate, greenhouse emissions per capita, and the percentage of total land that is protected.

Freedom (10%). Freedom House’s 2009 survey is the main source for these scores, with an emphasis on a citizen’s political rights and civil liberties.

Health (10%). In this category, we look at calorie consumption as a percentage of daily requirements, the number of people per doctor, the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people, the percentage of the population with access to safe water, the infant mortality rate, life expectancy, and public health expenditure as a percentage of a country’s GDP.

Infrastructure (10%). To calculate a country’s Infrastructure score, we look at the length of railways, paved highways, and navigable waterways in each country, and equated these things to each country’s population and size. We also consider the number of airports, motor vehicles , telephones, Internet service providers, and cell phones per capita.

Safety and Risk (10%). For this category, we use the U.S. Department of State’s hardship Differentials and danger allowances, which are based on extraordinarily difficult, notably unhealthy, or dangerous living conditions.

Climate (10%). When deciding on a score for each country’s climate, we look at its average annual rainfall and average temperature…and consider its risk for natural disasters.

Effectively what IL is saying is that the richer we are, the better our access to health, infrastructure, the less crowded our physical environment, the less interference from our government, the less rainfall our country receives — the better our quality of life. So why isn’t everyone attempting to emigrate to France the country with the best quality of life in the world, according to IL?

An index for quality of life makes total sense and is completely preposterous at the same time. At least IL readily points this out:

Our sources, staff, and contributing editors are all influenced by a Western bias. We have definite, preconceived ideas about what constitutes a high or low standard of living, what constitutes culture and entertainment, and what climate is the most enjoyable.

It is the intangibles of life, things like a sense of community, proximity to family and friends, cultural familiarity, that have as much to do with our quality of life as the index factors listed above. Sure, Beijing has an awful smog problem, is the seat of power of a repressive government and is crowded, but a friend of mine just moved back there from a leafy Sydney suburb because she was miserable in a country deemed by IL to be the 2nd most desirable in the world to live in.

We need to ignore these types of lists, despite the fact that they make us in particular look good, because they effectively mean nothing. They make out some countries to be paradise while writing off others completely. Quality of life is a totally subjective thing. If you want to know if the grass is greener somewhere else, go there and see for yourself. You’ll come back richer for the experience — or maybe you won’t.

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