2011 Quality of Life Index

Where to Find the World’s Best Quality of Life in 2011

International Living’s Annual Quality of Life Index 2011

Where will you find the world’s best quality of life? Going by numbers alone, the winner is clear: the United States.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story, of course. But we’ll start by letting the numbers have their say. The U.S. has the biggest economy in the world and—when compared to the 191 other countries in our survey, earns the highest marks for infrastructure. It scores respectably across the rest of our nine categories as well—cost of living, culture, environment, freedom, health, and safety. And thus, on a strictly statistical basis, the U.S. is hard to beat. A clear, if uninspiring, winner.

After all, eleven months of the year, we consider where you can live well on the cheap, pay less tax, enjoy better weather and take advantage of emerging markets. Where you can best escape, retire, start over, take off on a grand adventure…

But every January, we take a different perspective. We look at almost every country on Earth and ask: How do they stack up against one another?

This year, we’ve extensively retooled this annual index. We’ve tapped new sources, bumped old ones, and generally cleaned house to ensure we’re bringing together the best range of stats available anywhere.

On a macro level, the numbers tell their story. The U.S. has more paved roads than anywhere else, more airports and a lot of cell phones, good Internet access. It’s got a huge economy, the world’s biggest (though not necessarily the best), and it’s got tens of thousands of doctors and hospitals (if you can afford them). The numbers say: The United States has a lot going for it.

But statistics don’t always reflect the reality in communities on the ground. The truth is: In dozens of other countries, ranked lower in the final count than the U.S., you can enjoy a life of equal quality — with the same levels of comfort — at a much lower cost.

Admittedly, outside the States you may not get pizza delivered at all hours or find Wi-Fi in every café. But thousands of satisfied expats are living proof that, in return for sacrificing a little convenience, you can enjoy a truly healthy, happy and more affordable life overseas.

So yes, the size of an economy and the efficiency of a country’s infrastructure tell you a certain amount about what it’s like to live there. But how much will the GNP or the number of cell phones per capita affect your quality of life as a North American should you adopt another country as your home? Well, it depends.

Say, for example, you land in the colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador, with the idea that you’ll stay and live on an income of $2,000 a month. Well in that case, your quality of life will be second to none. Because with that kind of bankroll in Ecuador, where the cost of living is quite low, you could afford to access very good health care, have as many cell phones as you like, eat out twice a day, employ a maid…and still have plenty leftover.

The point is, it’s hard to put a simple number on the “quality” in quality of life. If we were to give less weight to the economy and infrastructure categories in our survey, the final rankings would be very different. And the countries we write about most often would come out much closer to the top.

Still, it can be useful to step back and see how each nation fares relative to others when we do consider these categories.  To come out ahead, a country must be an all-around good pick, not just a standout in one area or two. And that explains why the top finishers are developed nations like the U.S. and the rest of our top 10 — New Zealand, Malta, France, Monaco, Belgium, Japan, United Kingdom, Austria, and Germany.

None is among the most affordable nations on the planet. But they all offer other benefits. These nations are home to plenty of expats who are thrilled with life in their chosen havens and share their experiences below.

Originally from Indiana, Jennifer Tucker found her perfect work-life balance in New Zealand. Three generations of the Mulcare family discovered something to love about life in the French Pyrenees. Michelle Nott enjoys the real perks of life in Belgium (see below for all their stories).

Numbers are by their nature about quantity; they give an outline, but they don’t paint the picture. To get a more accurate sense for the rich tapestry of life around the world, you need to consider the reality on the ground.

Take Belarus, for example. Formerly a part of the Soviet Union, it has more doctors and hospital beds per person than anywhere else in the world, and so its health care score is pretty respectable. But that doesn’t mean it has the best health care. Do a little digging and you find out that while it had more than its share of medical colleges before the fall of the Berlin Wall—and still, today, many doctors—it’s nearly impossible to get specialized health care there.

By contrast, in Mexico, which earns the same score in the health category as Belarus, you have access to U.S.- and European-trained doctors and ultra-modern medical facilities. Many Mexican doctors speak excellent English, and their services cost less than half what you’d pay in the States.

Mexico scores well in other categories, too. It comes fourth in climate and 10th in culture— ahead of many developed countries including the U.S. Throw in a good score in cost of living and it’s obvious why it’s home to more expats than any other country in the world.

Look at a combination of categories and you’ll find some other attractive options. Zimbabwe and Malta tie for first place in climate. But they’re not cheap. When you take into account cost of living, then affordable Ecuador— which came in a close eighth in the climate category—starts to look very appealing.

Iceland, Switzerland and Costa Rica top our environment category. This year we ranked countries according to Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index. This ranks countries across 25 performance indicators, water quality, policy initiatives, biodiversity, air pollution, the effect of environmental factors on human health, and more. The U.S. didn’t do so well, coming in at only 61st.

Dozens of countries outperformed it, many of which are established or emerging retirement havens. Ranked 10th in environment, it’s no surprise Colombia is an emerging expat destination. It also scores well in the climate category, coming 20th, and it’s a really affordable option in terms of real estate and cost of living, too.

Now our Quality of Life Index can’t tell you where the best place is to buy beachfront or convert an old colonial into a guesthouse. What it can tell you is that with a warm, dry Mediterranean climate, low crime rates, good medical facilities and English-speaking population, Malta’s a good place to start looking.

It can tell you that New Zealand, this year’s runner-up, is a First World retirement haven. It can show you that Uruguay, 22nd this year, earns solid marks in infrastructure and health (which is partly why more and more wannabe expats consider it an attractive option). So where will you find your best quality of life? There is no answer. At least, no generic answer. It depends on what’s most important to you.

What’s Life Like There?

Not only did we crunch the numbers for this year’s Quality of Life Index, we also spoke to readers all over the world about life in their adopted homes. We asked them what makes life so good there…maybe it’s excellent health care, or safety and security. Perhaps it’s the low cost of living, a great scene and wonderful food. We’ve included their stories here.