The Concept of Quality of Life

Abstract from the 2009 Report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress chaired by Nobel Prize-winning economists Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz and Professor Amartya Sen, and by Professor Jean-Paul Fitoussi:

The traditional approach followed by economists to measure human well-being focuses on the resources that individuals have at their command, which are usually assessed in terms of either money income or assets or the goods and services that they consume. However, although resources are clearly important for human well being, they are also clearly insufficient. Quality of life is a broader concept than economic production and living standards. It includes the full range of factors that influences what we value in living, reaching beyond its material side.

Human well being depends on what resources enable people to do and to be. The ability to convert resources into a good life varies across people. Individuals with greater capacities for enjoyment or greater abilities for achievement in valuable domains of life may be better off even if they command fewer economic resources. This suggests that indicators that go beyond being measures of income, wealth and consumption and incorporate the non-monetary aspects of quality of life have an important role to play. The variety of these measures, and the lack of an obvious metric to compare developments in the various dimensions, constitutes both the main advantage and the main limit of these indicators.

What constitutes a “good life” has occupied leading philosophers since Aristotle, and dozens of definitions of the “good life” are discussed in the literature. None of these definitions commands universal agreement, and each corresponds to a different philosophical perspective. Quality of life is often tied to the opportunities available to people, to the meaning and purpose they attach to their lives, and to the extent to which they enjoy the possibilities available to them. Quality of life research has identified a rich array of attributes – such as belonging, fulfillment, self-image, autonomy, feelings and the attitudes of others – that are associated with quality of life. Some of these attributes are intangible and difficult to evaluate. Others, however, have a more tangible character and can be measured in reasonably valid and reliable ways. In all cases, measuring quality of life requires consideration of a multidimensional array of indicators; at the same time, these indicators lack a unique metric that would allow simple aggregation across dimensions.

Three main conceptual approaches have proved useful in thinking about the measurement of quality of life: The first is based on the notion of subjective well-being, the second on the notion of capabilities, and the third on economic notions drawn from welfare economics and from the theory of fair allocations. Each of these approaches informs different measurement strategies. While these approaches may represent opposite poles in intellectual terms, they all have a role to play in measuring quality of life.

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