Enhancing Quality of Life (QOL) has long been a major explicit or implicit lifestyle and policy goal for individuals, communities, nations, and the world, but defining QOL and measuring progress towards improving it have been elusive. Currently, there is renewed interest in this issue both in the academic and popular press. A search of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) database from 1982–2016 reveals over 55,000 academic citations utilizing the term “quality of life,” spanning a large range of academic disciplines.
In the popular press, quality of life is also a critical element in the ongoing discourse on economic prosperity and sustainability, but it has often been subsumed under the heading of “economic growth” under the assumption that more income and consumption equates to better welfare. This equation of consumption with welfare has been challenged by several authors, notably Sen and Nusbaum and is now also being challenged by recent psychological research, as it appears that no connection exists between one’s finances and their degree of self-reported happiness. Alternative measures of welfare and QOL are therefore actively being sought. For example, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have carried articles about the country of Bhutan’s decision to use “Gross National Happiness” as their explicit policy goal rather than Gross National Product (GNP). Recent research on QOL has focused on two basic methodologies of measurement, subjective and objective surveying.
The first method focuses on self-reported levels of happiness, pleasure, fulfillment, and the like-termed “subjective well-being” (SWB). The other utilizes so-called “objective” measurements of QOL-quantifiable indices generally of social, economic, and health indicators that reflect the extent to which human needs are or can be met. For example, objective measures include indices of economic production, literacy rates, life expectancy, and other data that can be gathered without directly surveying the individuals being assessed. Objective indicators may be used alone or in combination to form summary indices, such as the UN’s Human Development Index. While these measurements may provide a snapshot of how well some physical and social needs are met, they are narrow, opportunity-biased, and cannot incorporate many issues that contribute to QOL such as identity, participation, and psychological security. It is also clear that these so-called “objective” measures are actually proxies for experience identified through “subjective” associations of decision-makers; hence, the distinction between objective and subjective indicators is somewhat illusory.
Subjective indicators of QOL gain their impetus, in part, from the observation that many objective indicators merely assess the opportunities that individuals have to improve QOL rather than assessing QOL itself. Thus economic production may best be seen as a means to a potentially (but not necessarily) improved QOL rather than an end in itself. In addition, unlike most objective measures of QOL, subjective measures typically rely on survey or interview tools to gather respondents’ own assessments of their lived experiences in the form of self-reports of satisfaction, happiness, well-being or some other near-synonym. Rather than presume the importance of various life domains (e.g., life expectancy or material goods), subjective measures can also tap the perceived significance of the domain (or “need”) to the respondent. Diener and Suh provide convincing evidence that subjective indicators are valid measures of what people perceive to be important to their happiness and well-being, and can be extremely useful in both establishing the important factors of analysis and in explicating the results of objective surveys, as well as in their own outright analytical ability to produce accurate and previously inaccessible results.
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