As I sit at our kitchen table on yet another unseasonably damp and chilly morning in Sussex, England, watching the rain streak down the windowpanes and listening to the dawn rush of traffic on our far-too-busy street, I find myself thinking longingly of my Australian passport.
I smile wistfully at the news that the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has determined—yet again—that Australia is the happiest country in the developed world.
This is the third year running that my adopted land has won this distinction, beating out the rest of the OECD's 34 member states, plus Russia and Brazil, in the organization's annual Better Life Index survey. The United States, where I was born and raised, finished in sixth place, while Britain, where I have been spending time lately, came in tenth. The survey took into account 11 different economic, health, environmental, and lifestyle parameters that are reckoned to contribute to "happiness." After the OECD ground the numbers through the data mill, Australia, Sweden, and Canada finished one, two, three.
So why are Australians so happy, aside from obvious things like having so many lovely beaches close at hand and all that sunshine?
Well, the economy may have a little something to do with it. While the rest of the developed world has been wallowing in recession and austerity these past few years, Australia has been booming along in splendid sunburnt isolation. Thanks in part to its vast mineral wealth and the insatiable demand in Asia (especially China) for energy and raw materials, as of this year Australia's economy is starting its 21st consecutive year of growth. Unemployment, at 5.5 percent, is among the lowest of the OECD nations, while the minimum wage, at nearly $16 an hour, is double that in the United States.
Australia's credit rating has been given a solid AAA by all three of the major credit ratings agencies, making it one of only eight countries worldwide to be a member of the gilt-edged Nine A's Club. (Alas, neither the U.S. nor Britain are members anymore.)
While so many of the major banks and lending houses in the U.S. and Europe collapsed or required multi-billion-dollar bailouts in the domino-like fallout from the banking-led recession, not a single Australian one did. All of the big Australian banks sailed through these tricky waters, free and clear.
On the economic basis alone, if you're an Australian, enjoying your al fresco lunch at a sun-drenched sidewalk café in Melbourne and reading all these troubled financial headlines from faraway places—recession, taxpayer-funded bailout packages, job losses, and grim austerity measures—you're likely quite happy that you live where you do.
But it was more than just a strong economy and robust banking system that put Australia at the top of the ladder in the happiness stakes and kept it there these past three years. Health care, low crime rates, a clean environment, education, civic engagement, and a longer-than-average life expectancy were also factored into the score.
Surprisingly—or at least surprising to those who haven't lived or worked in Australia, and imagine a certain kind of breezy, laid-back, endless-summer lifestyle—Australia scored lowest on average working hours. One in seven Australian workers puts in more than 50 hours a week, far in excess of the OECD norm. Australians have always been hard workers. The stereotypical easygoing Aussie larrikin, as a cheeky fellow is known, may be there all right, on the surface, but he or she is fortified by a core of steel. Just ask any of the world's sporting teams that have been steamrolled by their ruthless Australian opponents over the years.
Winning and success is what helps make them happy. They are more than willing to put in the hours to get what they want and then spend the rewards, and their 'down time,' on living their lives to the fullest. In this they are very broad-minded.
My 20-year-old daughter Laura is just such an Australian, working incredibly long hours doing tough physical labor (at high pay!), working the grape harvest and vintage at one of the South Australian wineries near where she grew up. After several months of ceaseless toil, when the last of the harvest has been bottled, she packs her bags, scoops up her savings, and heads off to see a bit more of the world, confident in her ability to get another job when she returns. She has been doing this for three years now—in fact, she flies to London tomorrow morning.
How much longer she'll continue this footloose lifestyle is anyone's guess, but one thing is certain. When she does finally settle down to pursue a career, no Australian job interviewer is going to raise a censorious eyebrow at the gaps in her C.V. or resume, as employers would likely do in the U.S. or Britain. Chances are the conversation would segue into travel, and did you get to so-and-so, and is that little bar at such-and-such still going?
There is a lovely tolerance Down Under and a wonderfully healthy attitude about life and living, and when you couple all that with so many other things that are going their way, not to mention all the sunshine and wide-open spaces, it is small wonder Australians are happy.