All too often the perceived success of a country is linked to its economy, but income measures such as gross domestic product rarely provide the full picture of what it is like to live in a country, or its culture, lifestyle, social mobility opportunities or even the well-being of its citizens.
The Well-Being Index, a survey by Gallup and Healthways since 2008, has attempted to capture how people worldwide feel about and experience their daily lives.
Beyond physical health or financial indicators, well-being encompasses community elements such as enjoying where one lives and feeling safe; purpose in enjoying what one does each day and being motivated to achieve one’s goals; as well as social factors, including supportive relationships and a happy love life.
The survey classifies responses in the categories “thriving,” “struggling” or “suffering” to express strong, moderate or low well-being. It found that worldwide, only 17 percent of adults are thriving in at least three of the five well-being elements.
The 10 countries with the highest overall well-being in the world are Panama, Costa Rica, Denmark, Austria, Brazil, Uruguay, El Salvador, Sweden, Guatemala and Canada.
Panama leads the world in four of the five well-being elements – purpose, social, community, and physical well-being. The country’s strong and growing economy, with an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent in 2013, coupled with investments in national development, could be contributing to these high levels of thriving in well-being. However, neighboring Costa Rica is in second place despite its comparatively high unemployment in the region of nearly 9 percent.
The top three countries, however, have common attributes in terms of a stable government, a highly educated population, growing economies, political stability, relative safety, and access to basic services. While cultural factors such as a high level of positivity could affect personal perceptions of well-being, social safety nets, provided by government or through family and community networks, may also have contributed to the high levels of well-being in these countries.
There also appears to be a correlation between the ability to find work and high levels of well-being. Countries where a large percentage of respondents state that it is good time to find a job were nearly twice as likely to be thriving in three of the five elements compared to countries with the worst employment outlook.
The United States ranks 12th with high well-being levels in the purpose and social elements, but with many more adults “suffering” in physical and community well-being categories compared to the rest of the world.
Changes in well-being can have far-reaching implications.
“Improvement in each of the five well-being elements uniquely contributes to an increase in organizational value and reduction in cost,” says Peter Choueiri, president of Healthways International. “Their individual contributions, however, will vary based on the outcome being examined. While improvement in any one element will already positively affect the other four, strategies to improve well-being are optimally effective when the elements are addressed in concert with one another.”
In the United States, improving well-being has been shown to lower healthcare costs and increase worker productivity, which in turn enhance organizational and community competitiveness.
Globally, higher well-being correlates with outcomes indicative of stability and resilience – for example, healthcare utilization, intent to migrate, trust in elections and local institutions, daily stress, food and shelter security, volunteerism and willingness to help strangers.
Fewer than one in five adults worldwide feel they have a strong sense of purpose. Residents in the Americas are much more likely to thrive in the purpose well-being category (37 percent) than those in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa – a trend that appears to be associated with areas dominated by violent conflicts or poor economic performance.
Afghanistan and Syria struggled most in this element and had the lowest levels of purpose well-being, with 3 percent or fewer adults thriving in this element.
Favorable factors influencing a sense of purpose, according to the survey, are the level of education, wealth and youth. People in domestic partnerships and those who had completed four years of education beyond high school were more likely to be thriving in purpose well-being (27 percent) than the global population as a whole (18 percent).
The wealthiest 20 percent, urban residents, the young, and office workers were also more likely to be thriving than their poorer, more rural, older, or non-office worker counterparts. There is no difference globally between men and women in this category.
Community spirit and community-mindedness are a more widely available source of well-being than any other element. Again, the Americas region is leading, with more than one in three saying they are thriving in community well-being. Sub-Saharan Africa is at the bottom end of the scale.
Sweden is the country that offers the highest level of financial security, with 72 percent of Swedes saying they are thriving in this category. The perceived financial well-being is also high in other northern and central European countries, such as Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Of all the regions, the Americas have the highest levels of well-being outperforming global averages in all categories. Asian respondents, in turn, reported lower than global average scores for purpose and social well-being, which according to the report may partially reflect cultural norms in the region, as well as lower development, a more difficult work environment and economic factors.