Ireland is now the happiest place in the world to live, and France grumbles in 25th place. That is what a recent report surveying 111 countries from the Economist Intelligence Unit, part of the Economist group in London, says. Luckily, despite all that heady economic success, the Irish still have a grain of modesty to go with their humour, and the news was greeted with a chuckle. “A great place, but what about the traffic, the cost of living, the weather?” is how many folk reacted.
In France, there were the usual shrugs, but not much surprise, nor interest. They are used to being cut down to size in the Anglo-media, though on this occasion, the UK performed worse.
Ranking countries is fun, and a way for publishers to grab attention. But while the effort by such a serious thinktank to measure well-being beyond mere growth deserves applause, does this new life satisfaction survey really stand up?
Quality of life surveys that quiz people about how they feel (how come I never get asked?) are usually volatile and unreliable, but the EIU claims it has developed a “unique methodology linking subjective life-satisfaction surveys with the objective determinants of quality of life.” (My emphasis.)
At first sight, this should make Ireland feel even better about being top of the pile, though look at the company it keeps. In second place there’s Switzerland, a country of fine peaks and lakes, but outside Zurich, but hardly a bag of laughs, with those dead-end Alpine valleys where weirdoes with teeth growing in their ears watch your every move. As for thrill-a-minute Norway in third, NC from Oslo says this on the BBC chat room: “It's well below zero outside my office window, it will be dark by 16.00…and Oslo is hardly Europe's cultural hub.” Clearly, a winter case of acute “subjectivitis”. (See link below)
The EIU identifies nine objective criteria to test satisfaction levels. Foremost is material well-being, and GDP per head is the indicator used. A simple, but flawed, choice in Ireland’s case. At over €30K a year, Ireland’s is one of the world’s highest, but how many people actually earn that much? In 2001, according to the Dublin chamber of commerce, incomes in the capital averaged closer to €20K. Moreover, not all of that GDP belongs to Ireland, a relatively large chunk of it being foreign-owned profits. In the Paris region, taxable income hovered around €25K, about the same as national income per head. Also, profits going abroad balance more with French profits flowing in.
So why did Ireland do so well in the ranking? Clearly, wealth helps, but is not enough to bring bliss. The EIU identifies eight other factors, the most important being health, political stability and security; then family relations and community life; and finally, in order of importance, climate, job security, political freedom and gender equality.
Ireland’s performance is not exemplary on some of these, unless you like wind and rain (which I do!), or forking out personal money for basic health services like visits to the doctor (which I don’t). Makes you wonder. Perhaps the pro-business EIU would say that free healthcare makes the spoilt French grumpy, whereas paying your way makes you a cheery optimist. (Then again, the Swiss are second, remember?)
But where Ireland wins hands down, the EIU says, is in the mix between its modern economy and the old virtues that keep families and communities strong. Families are solid because the divorce rate, though rising, remains low. Fine, though I wonder what single mothers would say.
For community life, the EIU uses just two objective indicators: union membership and, wait, church attendance. Mon dieu! This will satisfy religious crusaders, and quelle coïncidence, the US community score was as high as Ireland’s! Surely, no amount of complicated maths can make such narrow judgements objective.
It certainly puts France with its progressive secularism at a disadvantage. Millions here go to church, even if just for the organ recitals. Who is to say that this is not community life? And what weight was given to traditional gatherings, like boules in the village square, or the Fête de la Musique, or the civic involvement of the 10,000 roller-bladers that fly round Paris together every weekend? And dare I mention the G and L words, though their “community” may not count in Jesusland.
Ireland also enjoys diverse forms of civic community, from the races to festivals, or hill walking, which is great, because church attendance is falling. Sadly, another community meeting place, Bewley’s Oriental Café, may soon disappear from Dublin’s streets. The global latte chains that helped drive out these convivial coffee houses may boost GDP, but I doubt if their efficient smile will ever warm up enough to replace them fully. What will that do to Ireland’s quality of life?
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