Which Country Has the Best Quality of Life?

Denmark got love in the Democratic presidential debate, but according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it’s not No. 1.

Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

At last week’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont told the audience—and millions of television viewers—that “we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

Those nations aren’t perfect, but they are well known for policies that make life easier for working parents. However, if Sanders happens across the new report and index from the Better Life Initiative of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, he might suggest that the United States look down under for inspiration.

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Australia ranks No. 1 overall when it comes to quality of life, according to the OECD’s report and index, which were released late last week. The OECD analyzed how 36 of the wealthiest countries in the world are doing in 11 areas: income, jobs, community, health, civic engagement, education, housing, environment, safety, life satisfaction, and work-life balance.

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada round out the top five. Switzerland is ranked sixth, and the United States comes in seventh. Worst off: Mexico, Turkey, and Chile.

Overall Rankings

The report’s findings also indicate that the old adage is true: Money can’t buy happiness. The average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita in the United States is $41,355 a year, which is more than the OECD average of $25,908 a year and is the highest out of all the nations measured. When the data for income (the amount of household net disposable income and financial wealth) as well as jobs (unemployment, job security, and personal earnings) is separated out from the other categories, the U.S. takes the top spot.

Jobs and Income

But when other factors are added to the mix, the U.S. lags. The top 20 percent of U.S. residents earn about eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent, according to the report. Rates of kids living in poverty have soared since the Great Recession, which has a significant impact on children’s education outcomes. When parents struggle to feed, house, and clothe their children, kids go to school stressed, hungry, and unhealthy—and the results of not having enough cash for nutritious food, or adequate books in the home, plays out on standardized tests.


Although Australia’s work-life balance is slightly worse than that in the U.S., Australians are more satisfied with life overall. Factoring only those two indicators, the U.S. is second to last. But it turns out Sanders may be on to something: Denmark comes out on top (alongside Norway).

Health, Work-Life Balance, and Life Satisfaction