Quality of Life

THE CONCEPT OF quality of life includes multiple related ideas such as well-being, level of living, standard of living, and livability. Many commentators use the terms interchangeably. Quality of life refers to the overall nature of an individual or group’s lived environmental experience—specifically, the satisfaction of desires associated with human needs and wants. Material and existential dimensions of life-worlds constitute the satisfaction of desires (such as having possessions and being happy). Well-being, on the other hand, refers to a general state of wellness, whereas level of living entails an economic and social assessment of the “actual degree of satisfaction of the needs and wants of a person or … group,” and standard of living refers to the material and social aspirations of a population. Livability denotes the degree to which a place meets the requirements of human inhabitation.

A range of disciplines are concerned with quality of life, including sociology, geography, economics, planning, psychology, and public health. This is because quality of life, either a positive or negative, is framed by multiple axes of difference including gender, age, race, disability, income, education, residential location, and personal hygiene. The metrics for assessing quality of life thus exhibit substantial variation. Nonetheless, many measures are inter-related. Poverty, for example, configures life chances and thus life quality in very specific ways, including access to education and housing, exposure to pollution, exposure to violent crime, nutritional content of food, purity of water, and overall physical and mental health.

Quality of life is typically assessed through a wide variety of measures and indicators. These indicators vary across time, space, scale, and political spectrums. They include economic indicators such as income, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and employment levels; social indicators such as nutrition, physical health, and healthcare facilities, prevalence of injuries or disease in a population, mental health, security or freedom from crime, freedom from discrimination, freedom of cultural expression, literacy and education, personal mobility, and leisure; political indicators such as democratic inclusiveness; human rights; physical or institutional indicators such as level of urbanization, urban service provision, and standards of housing; and environmental indicators such as freedom from pollution and access to open space. The first attempts at assessing and reporting quality of life occurred in the United States in the early 20th century, when the Chicago School of Urban Social Ecology began to investigate the living conditions of urban migrants. In the 1940s, the United States developed formal procedures for assessing the quality of farm life in the Midwest. However, indices were largely economic and based upon material possessions and services associated with national affluence and progress (such as farms being connected to the electric grid). In the 1950s, measures of economic performance (such as GDP) were codified by many nation-states, since economic progress was associated with the ability to provide food, clothing, shelter, employment, education, physical mobility, and leisure. By the 1960s, social indicators, or composite measures of welfare, were being formalized by organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations. This was partly in response to the recognition that increases in material affluence produced by economic growth were often accompanied by unforeseen negative impacts such as environmental pollution or concentrated poverty. The real advances here were related to the ability of various agencies to report changes over time, to disaggregate data by scale and geographic location, and the connection of indicators with policy objectives. Multiple constructs and techniques emerged during this period, but three gained wide currency: economic indicators, psychological measures, and spatial indicators.

In the 1970s and 1980s, greater attention was paid to the spatial expression of quality of life, resulting in the urban social atlas movement, in which government agencies, often in conjunction with spatial analysts, published atlases of urban regions which reported territorial indicators (such as levels of education or unemployment by geographic location). From the late 1980s, psychologists have added subjective assessments of quality of life to the toolbox of measures, recognizing that quality of life is not something that is external to the individual, and that the same life conditions can be perceived differently by different people. Most recently, some public health scholars and urban planners have begun to elucidate the inter-connections between built environment, level of physical activity, and quality of life. Similarly, environmental economists have begun to quantify the ways that quality of life is dependent upon access to Nature’s services.

SEE ALSO: Needs and Wants; Social ecology; Sociology; Urban Planning; Urban Sprawl.


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Economics (v.58, 2006).Jason Byrne University of Southern California

Source: Encyclopedia of Environment and Society – 5 Vol., Paul Robbins, Editor