Losing the good life

There are 194 sovereign countries on this planet. (That was the number as of last week, anyway. Who knows what got overthrown, toppled or segmented over the weekend?) Every year, a magazine called International Living rates each country on its quality of life. Scores are based on the cost of living, economy, culture and leisure, environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, safety and climate, with the first two categories weighted at 15 percent and all others at 10 percent.

I.L. is not a new magazine, by the way. It’s existed since 1985, so this is its 21st Quality of Life Index. For the first 20 Q.L.I.’s, the numero uno nation was the United States. Not this year.

The new Top 10 for ‘06, in ascending order, begins with Italy, which posted a score of 79. Next comes Finland (80), Sweden (81), the United States in seventh place (82), Austria (83), New Zealand (84), Denmark in the fourth spot (85), Australia (86), Switzerland (87), and at number one, France (88). Yep, France carried the top spot because of its culture and for having the best health care system in the world, according to the World Health Organization. And the food is rumored to be pretty good, too.

Why did the United States drop to seventh after 20 years at number one? I.L. says, “It is the ongoing and increasing infringements of personal freedoms in this country that account primarily for its fall from first place in our index. The United States remains, inarguably, the world’s most convenient place to live. But, we argue, convenience is not the most important factor in determining any country’s quality of life.”

There’s all of one point separating each of the Top 10 countries, meaning there isn’t all that much difference between living in Sweden and Australia, for example. But my main purpose in writing about this survey is to show that when it comes to quality of life, we ain’t the only game on this planet, folks. Not by a long shot.

In the “Best Cities” category, only one North American entry made it on the Top 10. No, not San Francisco. Are you kidding? New York? Not quite. It’s an obvious pick, if you’ve ever been there. If you haven’t, it’ll take you a good long while to guess. It’s Vancouver (the Canadian Vancouver, not the suburb of Portland). Three of the Top 10 cities are in Switzerland (Geneva, Zurich, Bern), three in Germany (Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf) and two down under (Sydney, Auckland).

Coming in 194th, dead last in the Q.L.I. is, well, go ahead, take a guess. Yep, Iraq, with a score of 31, including a not surprising zero in the category of safety. The most expensive country in the world isn’t exactly a shocker, either: Japan, by a large margin over second place Norway.