Country rankings don't paint the whole picture — happiness-driven resource allocation and expat resources

7 min readMar 12, 2020


As a startup founder and expatriate, I've had to decide to move overseas several times. This has led to reading and examining several reports and indexes that compare quality of life within and between countries.

I believe the following resources and musings can shed light on others trying to make an informed decision on where to move, live, and work.

Also, just as how people balance work and life, I believe governments can start balancing the use of various life satisfaction indicators to allocate resources towards positively impacting their citizens' lives.

I have included some ideas at the end that may be useful for government performance evaluation as well as some resources for expats and nomads to compare where to go next.

How are countries measured?

Of course, countries are ranked on economic development indicators. These look at how countries work. We've got:

On the other hand, we're starting to see new indicators that look at how countries and their citizens live. For example, we've got:

Latin America reports higher life evaluation than other regions

It may not be so evident in the maps, but there are some countries that report higher trust and life satisfaction than average.

The usual measure is derived from studies such as the World Values Survey. These findings can be correlated with economic development and infrastructure:

However, there are regions that report higher connectedness and happiness (less individualistic countries), despite high levels of corruption and insecurity: namely, Latin American countries. This was made evident in the 2019 World Happiness Report:

On average, the countries of Latin America still have mean life evaluations that are higher (by about 0.6 on the 0 to 10 scale) than predicted by the model. This difference has been attributed to a variety of factors, including especially some unique features of family and social life in Latin American countries.

To help explain what is special about social life in Latin America, Chapter 6 of World Happiness Report 2018 by Mariano Rojas presented a range of new data and results showing how the social structure supports Latin American happiness beyond what is captured by the variables available in the Gallup World Poll.

Digging deeper, Chapter 6 of the 2018 World Happiness Report states :

The emerging data from Latin America shows that life evaluation indicators are high in relation to what income levels in the region would predict and that positive affect indicators are outstandingly high with respect to the rest of the world. In other words, it seems that the set of social and economic indicators which are commonly used in development studies do not provide a complete picture of the well-being of Latin Americans. (..)

Latin Americans spend much time and resources in the nurturing of interpersonal relations. Some Latin American social thinkers have made a distinction between the realm of relations and the realm of the material world; their research shows that Latin Americans give greater importance to the relational realm and, in consequence, to the creation and sustain of interpersonal relations. The family — both the nuclear one and the extended one — is a central institution in Latin American culture and it is also an important source of positive affect and of purpose in life. (..)

The realm of close interpersonal relations in Latin America extends beyond the nuclear and extended family. Friends are also highly involved in the daily life of Latin Americans, and friends are expected to play an important role not only in bringing emotional and economic support but also in sharing daily life.

Resource allocation: investing, not just measuring

Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen believed you can apply management thinking to measure your own life. Among the lessons he imparted, he advocated that you can talk about indicators, data, and happiness research as much as you like, but resource allocation is where the rubber hits the road.

“With every moment of your time, every decision about how you spend your energy and your money, you are making a statement about what really matters to you.”

― Clayton M. Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?

Meaning, if your resources (time, money) are spent in developing yourself or your business, improving your home, or acquiring nicer things, but not in passively investing in your family and friends, consequences can be hard to detect when they arise.

“The relationships you have with family and close friends are going to be the most important sources of happiness in your life. But you have to be careful. When it seems like everything at home is going well, you will be lulled into believing that you can put your investments in these relationships onto the back burner. That would be an enormous mistake. By the time serious problems arise in those relationships, it often is too late to repair them. This means, almost paradoxically, that the time when it is most important to invest in building strong families and close friendships is when it appears, at the surface, as if it’s not necessary.”
Clayton M. Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?

According to Clayton, family and friends come first. Perhaps there may be cultural learnings that high-income countries can learn from Latin America.

Could these thoughts be extrapolated to government resource allocation? Could the above rankings be useful for expats and nomads?

I believe so.

For Good Measure: Ideas for government allocation

So, how can governments apply the above to foster quality of life improvements? Some ideas could be extrapolated to public resource allocation and actions:

  1. Monitor and measure quality of life improvements. This is essential. You need to measure how you're doing to prioritize where to prioritize. Many countries and cities value metrics such as economic freedom, the number of new businesses created, mean salary, cost of living, etc. These need to be balanced with other variables such as trust, safety, loneliness, and other variables mentioned in the studies above.
  2. Apply data-driven urban planning. Governments can invest in spaces and existing institutions that foster family and friend connectivity, and also infrastructures that improve walkability, mobility, innovation, among other things. Data-driven decision making is crucial for this to happen. The Amsterdam Institute for Metropolitan Solutions and Barcelona's efforts in urban transformation can be good places to start if you are an urban planner or mayor who wants to proactively improve your city's livability.

For Informed Action: Resources for expats and nomads

What about migration? How to find the ideal cities/countries for me to work in?

  1. Compare countries based on the quality of life variables that work for you. Each person holds a different measuring stick, but some of the tools above can be configured. Besides diving into the indexes that may be of interest, check out OECD's Better Life Index, and play with the variables to compare how life is on their Regional Wellbeing site.
  2. Look at minimum annual leaves by country. This will give you an idea of the country's culture on vacation and personal time off. Also look at policies around paid parental leave, and sick time off. European countries fare pretty well in this regard, while still maintaining their productivity levels.
  3. Look at universal healthcare by country. If you or your loved ones get sick, especially into your 30s or 40s, you don't want to go broke. This is especially important if you plan to have a family. If you're working remote-first, try to get global healthcare and insurance coverage.
  4. Target higher-income country sources and high expat satisfaction. If you want the freedom to travel and move around the world, you're going to need a higher income-cost of living margin.
  5. Compare salaries and evaluate the move. You may be able to look at salary averages on Glassdoor, use Movebuddha's tool to evaluate if you should move to a region for work (and Nerdwallet's cost of living calculator if you're moving within the US).
  6. Compare lifestyle and welcomeness. Nomad list can be a good source of information regarding lifestyle. Here's a list for the World's most welcoming countries for expats for reference as well.




Technology adoption, market creation, and capacity building in LATAM. Ecuatoriano.