06/09/2015 09:26 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2016

The Recipe for a Better Life

By Anthony Gooch

To make a good dish you need more than one ingredient, and this is the same when looking at the quality of people's lives. It has become clear since the crisis that the sole ingredient of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of societal progress is not enough. Governments have to take into account the wide range of factors affecting people's lives and try to find solutions that spread across many areas of policy. This year's OECD Forum -- Investing in the Future People, Planet and Prosperity -- focuses on essential themes that need to be addressed to create better lives.

The OECD Better Life Index captures elements of these themes and more by measuring 11 key aspects of life. Instead of just looking at the usual economic factors such as income, jobs and housing, the Better Life Index also includes environment, community, work-life balance, personal security, education, health, civic engagement and the level of satisfaction with life. So, how do countries perform in these three themes?

"People" can be measured by many different factors. For example, Iceland ranks at the top in employment, with the highest rate of 82 percent of people with a paid job. The Czech Republic does the best in educational attainment, with 92 percent of adults having completed upper secondary education. Australia has the highest civic engagement with a voter turnout of 93 percent.

When it comes to the "Planet", the Nordic countries, New Zealand and Germany perform best, with low levels of air pollution and good water quality. Sweden does better overall with the cleanest air, and over 95 percent of Swedes say they are satisfied with the water quality.

In terms of income, an admittedly limited indicator of "Prosperity", the United States comes out top with the highest household disposable income and financial wealth, although this is not distributed equally among the population.

But what good are these numbers if they do not coincide with the aspirations of the people that live in these countries? Apart from simply measuring a wide range of well-being indicators, we need to engage with citizens to find out what they think is really important in life.

The Better Life Index does this by inviting people to rate the 11 dimensions of well-being according to the importance they give them in life. For example, if you think the environment is more important than income, you can give it a higher rating and see how the countries rank depending on their performances in these two dimensions. When you create and share your own Better Life Index, you also provide valuable information on what individual people think is most important for well-being around the world. So far, more than 90,000 people have shared their view on what makes for a better life since the Index was launched in 2011.

What are they telling us so far? Overall, people want to be "healthy, happy and wise," ranking health as the top priority for a better life, with life satisfaction and education coming in close behind. They give low importance to civic engagement. This may reflect the fact that the crisis, and the high unemployment that has come with it, has undermined the confidence and trust of citizens in everything from governments to markets, businesses and institutions at large, with users from almost every country ranking civic engagement as the lowest priority.

However, a closer look at the responses map of users' choices reveals that there are many differences depending on where you come from, how old you are, and sometimes whether you are a man or a woman. For example, in Europe, although people rank life satisfaction as top, Italians give a greater importance to the environment and civic engagement, whereas the Irish attach more importance to having a good balance between work and personal life. Outside Europe, greater importance is given to safety in countries like Japan and Korea, and to education in Chile and Mexico.

These results often mirror the performance of the country in the various dimensions. In Italy the greater importance they give to civic engagement is translated into the fact that a large share of its population votes in national elections: 75 percent participated in the most recent parliamentary elections, well above the 68 percent average in the OECD. Although Japan has one of the lowest homicide rates in the OECD, people put safety as the top priority in a country that was the tragic victim of a tsunami so recently.

Apart from providing fascinating insights, the Better Life Index is a way for policy-makers and policy-shapers to see what citizens want and expect, and where policies to improve people's lives should be focused. Many countries have now started their own well-being initiatives, and are starting to evaluate and implement policies through a well-being lens. These initiatives will be crucial for citizens to regain trust in their governments and institutions.

This is also why the OECD is committed to expanding its work on well-being with many other studies such as How's Life in Your Region? Measuring Regional and Local Well-being for Policy Making and How Was Life? Global Trends in Well-being since 1820. With the addition of an Italian version launched in April in conjunction with Expo Milan 2015 as well as a complementary website highlighting well-being in various countries through food, the Better Life Index is now available in seven languages.

But we still need your help. The more indexes we get the more we can get a sense of what people need to improve their lives. So if you think you know what the recipe is for La Dolce Vita, tell us by creating and sharing your own Better Life Index and adding your voice to others all around the world.

Anthony Gooch is Director of the OECD Public affairs and Communications Directorate and joint project leader of the OECD Better Life Initiative.