The Big Question: Quality of Life

Around the world, a central question bears on sustainability, the environment, and social and financial well-being: How much is enough? But there is an important corollary to that question—perhaps even more directly important to individuals. What does quality of life mean? And how should we measure it? Our panel of global experts weighs in.


Peter Singer: Living Ethically

More than a billion people cannot count on meeting their basic needs for food, sanitation, and clean water. Their children die from simple, preventable diseases. They lack a minimally decent quality of life.

At the same time, more than a billion people live at a hitherto unknown level of affluence. They think nothing of spending more to go out to dinner than the other billion have to live on for a month. Do they therefore have a high quality of life? Being able to meet one’s basic needs for food, water, and reasonable health is a necessary condition for having an adequate quality of life, but not a sufficient one.

In the past, we spent much of our day ensuring we would have enough to eat. Then we would relax and socialize. Now, for the affluent, it is so easy to meet our basic needs that we lack purpose in our daily activities—leading us to consume more, and thus to feel we do not earn enough for all that we “need.” But that is not the way to a better quality of life. We need to find activities that are really fulfilling and meaningful to us. Living more ethically is one way of making our lives more meaningfully. In a world with a billion people in great need, we should begin to do just that.

Peter Singer, originally from Australia, is a professor of ethics at Princeton University and the University of Melbourne and the author of The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.


Pavan Sukhdev: The Value of Nature

Scarcely a day can pass when my happiness is not affected by family, friends, colleagues, work, leisure, traffic, pollution, weather, crime. We seek “well-being.” And so, at a personal level, we all do what we can to nurture our most cherished relationships, balance work with our personal lives to combine professional success and free time, avoid bad traffic conditions, choose to go out when it’s balmy, and live in clean, green, and safe areas.

We may also vote for politicians and purchase from corporations who make us believe their plans and products will increase our “well-being.” The problem is, they might not deliver. Indeed, well-being is hardly measured, and what is not measured cannot be managed.

Instead, modern society measures production, profits, savings, and wealth—all of which might contribute to well being, but are hardly equivalent. The environment is sometimes measured quantitatively—emissions, pollution levels—but then left to the mercy of uninformed economic trade-offs and policy choices. It is time for that to change. The economic invisibility of nature must end. Policymakers, administrators, and businesses must recognize the economic value of a clean environment and take that into account in their decision-making. Otherwise, we can forget about improving our “quality of life.”

Pavan Sukhdev is the head of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative.


Hon-Lam Li: Happiness

“Quality of life” can be understood in three main ways. First, there is the wealth or purchasing power of citizens, and the quality and accessibility of goods provided in the community—including education, healthcare, parks, public roads, air, and water. A supplement to this first category are social and political goods, such as democracy, rule of law, political and religious freedom, the lack of discrimination, and a sense of community.

But quality of life can also suggest happiness—a subjective state of mind. Using that metric, the citizens of some developing countries, such as Bhutan, score high. Finally, quality of life can refer to a more objective sense of happiness that is related to the meaningfulness of one’s profession or work. A physician who joins Doctors Without Borders may be happier than one who earns a larger income, because the first—by working to alleviate the pain and suffering in the Third World—is devoted to a cause that is more meaningful.

There are methods for measuring quality of life in terms of wealth or material goods. One can also obtain a rough measure of people’s subjective happiness by simply asking them how happy they are. However, it is much more difficult to measure meaningfulness. One way to do so would be to evaluate the extent to which individuals believe they have fulfilled their own ideals.

Hon-Lam Li is a professor of philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a visiting Fulbright Senior Scholar in the department of philosophy at Harvard University.


Madhu Suri Prakash: Convivial Societies

Quality of life starts when I can see myself reflected in the eyes of my friends, and the person I see is likable, with dignity. In living the good life, my “I” vanishes, transformed into a real “we”—a “we” made whole by community and commons.

A “good life” is only possible in a convivial society that guarantees each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community. In convivial societies, work is fun, beautiful, and dignified. The schizophrenic separation of work and leisure vanishes. Personal freedoms are only limited when they impinge on another member’s equal freedom. This implies communal autonomy—increasing your capacity to self-govern, instead of depending on the market or the state for the products and services supposedly designed “for us,” but really intended to increase the power or profits of other individuals or small groups.

Madhu Suri Prakash, from India, is a professor of education at Penn State and co-author of Grassroots Post-Modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures.


Hellmuth Lange: Luck and Labor

Quality of life is just another term for overcoming hardship and misery. However, setbacks can occur at any time. Thus, quality of life and good fortune are very much alike. But while good fortune is said to be a gift of the gods, quality of life is strongly dependent on our own actions—the fruit of personal endeavor in terms of labor and struggle.

Yet, this understanding exhibits a notable middle-class bias. Personal endeavor is only half of what is needed. Favorable conditions are equally important. This is why the United Nations Human Development Project emphasizes the need to meet the basic requirements of the poor and to provide education as a prerequisite for developing one’s own capacities. Furthermore, a social framework is needed that allows for equitable participation in both the private and public sphere. We can measure these conditions—but there is no universal yardstick.

Hence, quality of life proves to be both objective and extremely relational at the same time—relational in respect to what is standard at a given time, within particular groups and specific fields. In that sense, quality of life is nothing more than what is considered to be a decent standard.

Hellmuth Lange is a visiting professor at the Beijing Language and Culture University, and co-author of The New Middle Classes.


Susanna Baltscheffsky: Children’s Health

Having been a mother for 22 years, I just cannot overlook the single factor that has most impacted the quality of my own life—the privilege of being a parent. My two young adult children recently came home for a few days. We spent a lot of time together, talking and laughing. Life felt so good and easy. Would my quality of life be different if I lived in a poorer country and was more exposed to poverty? Surely life would be harder and more troublesome. But I am convinced that the feeling of happiness when we are close to our children is something that we all share, regardless of socio-economic disparities.

This suggests to me one important indication of the quality of life a society offers. A country that manages to decrease its infant-mortality rate should not only end up with healthier children, but also happier citizens. In Sweden, where I live, 997 out of 1,000 children reach the age of one. Even though all parents now and then worry that something bad might happen to their child, Swedish parents don’t live with much fear of losing their babies altogether—a confidence that surely improves the quality of their own lives.

Susanna Baltscheffsky is the environment editor at the Stockholm daily, Svenska Dagbladet.


Elizabeth Peredo: Suma Qamaña

In contemporary societies, well-being is linked in unhealthy ways to consumption. The transformation of citizenship into nothing more than consumerism is destroying solidarity and life on earth, dramatically affecting the fragile environment on which we depend. The unlimited satisfaction of greed as a cultural pattern seems to be deeply installed in our brains and daily practices.

In two Andean countries in South America—Ecuador and Bolivia—new constitutions explicitly articulate the Suma Qamaña (“Living Well”) principle. This concept, inspired by the philosophical traditions of the indigenous people of those countries, calls for an end to over-consumption and a recognition of the finite limits imposed by nature on “limitless” growth, as an alternative based on human solidarity. Suma Qamaña is an attempt to reinvent governance systems and reduce environmental destruction and human injustice. It is of a piece with similar grassroots efforts around the world seeking to save the planet by changing the way we live. Many of these efforts are not highly visible—but they might hold the answers to the fundamental challenge of contemporary civilization.

Elizabeth Peredo is the executive director of the Solon Foundation, a Bolivian human-rights and cultural organization.


Compiled by Ashley M. Knotts

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