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The Quality of Life

Michael Jacobs, General Secretary of the Fabian Society, London




The term Quality of Life (QoL) has been widely used in a number of disciplines to express the idea of personal well-being in a framework which goes beyond the simple economistic equation of well-being with income. (There is one important variant on this which I shall not discuss here, namely its use in the health policy literature to refer to the nature - as opposed to the length - of elderly or sick people’s lives.) Quality of life is generally used as the overarching concept which encompasses income (and therefore consumption) but also includes other factors which contribute to well-being. In this short paper I shall discuss the meanings that have been attached to QoL in the literature, some issues concerned with its measurement, and the component factors which are generally held to contribute to it. I shall then offer a very sketchy observation on the relationship between QoL and consumption.


The Quality of Life: Individual and Social


The first point to make is that the literature on quality of life generally fails to distinguish between the quality of individual lives and the quality of the collective life of a society (or a place) as a whole.


The starting place for most QoL studies has been the subjective experience of well-being of the individual. However the attempt to measure this has involved an inexorable slide towards a non-individual perspective. People’s subjective perceptions of their well-being are so clearly non-comparable, and affected by expectation and social comparison, that attention quickly turned to the identification of objective conditions which influence subjective experience: people’s objective state of health, for example, rather than their feelings of well-ness. But many of these objective conditions are not (or cannot be measured as) peculiar to the individual at all. The quality of air, the level of education or indeed the level of employment, all require collective or aggregate measurement. So the quality of life gradually became, for many researchers, a description of the collectively experienced conditions of a society or place, with only an indirect and contingent relationship to the subjective experience of well-being of individuals.


In the hands of Greens, this process has been taken further. Concerned to argue that the social costs of economic growth have increased to the point where they now outweigh the benefits of higher income, green writers have included factors such as loss of natural habitats, global warming and increasing inequality to their concept of quality of life. Yet these factors are not elements of personal well-being at all. They are components of the quality or health or sustainability of society as a whole. Their value is not derived from the aggregate well-being of individuals, but independently, from a conception of what constitutes a good society.


There are thus two related but separate concepts operating here: individual QoL and social QoL. This is particularly important in relation to environmental goods. Some environmental goods and costs directly affect individual QoL - air quality, for example, or traffic congestion. But many do not. Natural habitats do not make me better off personally, nor does reducing the risk of global warming to future generations. These contribute rather to the health or quality of society. The same is true of many social or shared goods, including cultural goods which many people do not use themselves, such as universities and public service broadcasting.


Of course social QoL contributes to individual QoL: (some) individuals feel better off when they live in a better society. But this is not the justification for pursuing social QoL. They are logically separate. (Conversely, individual QoL should contribute to social QoL: a society would not be very good or healthy if its natural habitats were preserved and inequality eradicated but its people were all stressed at work and going through divorce). If people feel that social QoL contributes to their own personal QoL this indicates a self-identification with, or feeling of membership of, society. Politically this would appear to be an important prerequisite for defending social goods whose contribution is to social QoL.


The rest of this paper will focus on individual QoL.


Individual Quality of Life: Definition


The simplest definition of individual QoL is the subjective feeling that one’s life overall is going well. (Note that this differentiates QoL from ‘happiness’, which tends to connote too transitory and emotional a condition). ‘Overall’ is intended to define QoL as the overarching judgement of how all the different elements of one’s life combine together.


There are three problems with this definition, however. The first is that it can only be measured subjectively, by asking people about their own QoL. This raises all the familiar problems of subjective measurement, its reliability and comparability. The second is that QoL in this definition relies heavily on the character and dispositions of the individual. A person may be rich, successful in their job, healthy and happily married and still not feel their life is going well, perhaps because they have unfulfilled personal goals or simply because they have a depressive personality. If we say such a person does not have a good QoL, as we will have to on this definition, the concept becomes more or less meaningless in terms of public policy and research.


The third problem is the converse of this. Subjective satisfaction with one’s life is strongly related to one’s expectations of it. Expectations in turn are related to social position: people compare themselves to others in their self-perceived social position. Low expectations achieved lead to higher subjective reporting of QoL than high achievement that fails to meet expectations. This leads to the apparent conclusion that one way to increase QoL is to reduce people’s expectations. Yet this fails to account for the desirability of personal growth and development, of the accomplishment of challenging individual life goals. As J S Mill said, it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than the pig satisfied.


These problems suggest a definition of QoL not in terms of overall subjective experience, but as a set of conditions relating to an individual’s life that would appear to indicate, from outside, that it is going well. This definition accepts that it may not, in fact, capture the subjective perception of overall well-being, but makes a generalised claim that - if these conditions obtain - in most cases it will.


The crucial distinction between the two definitions is not between subjective and objective measurement. Many of the factors which contribute to QoL on the second definition require at least a partial element of subjective measurement. It is between QoL as an ‘overall’ judgement and QoL as a set of separate conditions or factors which contribute to this judgement. Whereas the ‘overall’ judgement can only be made by the individual, the separate factors can be observed and presented by the social researcher. There is no need, in fact, to combine them into a single ‘overall’ measure of QoL. To do so requires procedures for commensuration and weighting which will inevitably involve disputable value judgements.


The Components of Individual Quality of Life


Many years of both conceptual and empirical research (the latter on what people report contributes to their QoL) have resulted in a generally accepted list of factors which together comprise or determine QoL. (There are generally small differences of content and presentation.) The same factors can contribute to a good or a bad QoL, though not always symmetrically. Ill health, for example, can make QoL worse more or less without limit, but good health contributes to a good QoL only up to a point. The following is my own presentation / categorisation:


(1) Income and consumption


(2) Health:

(a) Physical

(b) Mental (stress, depression, happiness)


(3) Relationships:

(a) Family

(b) Friends


(4) Satisfaction with:

(a) Job

(b) Leisure


(5) Personal autonomy:

(a) ‘Free’ time (in which activities can be ‘chosen’)

(b) Life opportunities and choices


(6) Security, of:

(a) Person

(b) Income, employment, housing etc

(c) Lifeworld, including environment (NB. Different people need or want different levels of security.)


(7) Personal development: accomplishment, personal growth


(8) Social goods contributing to individual well-being:

(a) Environmental (air quality, townscape, etc)

(b) Social (low crime, social order)

(c) Public services (education, health, parks, etc)


(9) Social goods contributing to a good society:

(a) Environmental (natural habitats, risks)

(b) Cultural (museums, art galleries, etc - if not used)

(c) Ethical (equality, reduction in poverty, etc)

(d) Government (democracy, etc)


Discussion of QoL generally assumes that the relationship between income and QoL is unproblematic. Higher incomes allow higher consumption levels, and people are assumed to buy goods and services because they contribute to their QoL. In fact the relationship between consumption and QoL is not quite so simple; we shall discuss this below.


All the other factors are only partially related to individual income, or not related to it at all. (This is of course the reason for the QoL concept in the first place.) The quality of personal relationships are not affected by income. In some cases there are society-wide relationships with income which do not apply to all individuals: this applies to physical health, job satisfaction, personal development. Many affluent people do not experience high quality in these aspects of their lives; many poorer people do. In the case of social goods, these are not bought individually but provided through collective regulation or pubic spending. Higher individual income may enable a person to move to an area with (say) better environmental or crime conditions but it may not.


Quality of Life and Public Policy


The public policy relevance of the concept of QoL as defined in this way should be fairly clear. If the objective of government is to improve QoL (because this is the overarching concept of well-being), raising household incomes, which is normally taken to be the principal objective of economy policy, may not be the most appropriate method. Depending on the trade-offs people make (or society judges) between gains in income and gains in the other factors, it may be more important to concentrate on improving the latter.


Indeed if the very economic processes which generate higher incomes themselves contribute to a reduction in the other factors, then raising incomes may be positively counter- productive. Present patterns of economic growth clearly contribute to environmental degradation, and arguably to poor job satisfaction, low job and income security, high levels of stress, certain health problems, possibly even to high crime. This is the familiar environmentalist argument about ‘the social costs of growth’; the claim is that to improve QoL society should either stop income growth altogether (the older version of the argument) or change its patterns (the more modern version). (There is no guarantee of course that changing the patterns of economic activity to improve environmental impacts would also lead to improvements in the other aspects of quality of life, though this is often implicitly assumed by environmentalists.)


This argument of course ignores the equally plausible claim that recent patterns of economic growth have increased QoL, not just by raising incomes but by increasing personal autonomy, improving health, education and other public services, even improving family relationships through the liberation of women (and so on). It is by no means clear, contrary to what environmentalists frequently argue, that individual QoL has fallen in (say) the last twenty years. (In fact many environmentalists actually want to argue that social QoL has fallen - society has got worse - a much more plausible claim. But they have failed to distinguish between the individual and social concepts.)


In fact, the relationship between national income and QoL is not obvious. Many of the components of QoL would appear to be only partially related to economic factors. They would seem to be primarily culturally or personally determined. Economic policy may simply not be the relevant field of public policy, either negatively or positively. In other cases the issue would appear to be, less the growth of national income as simply its allocation. It may well be that a reallocation of resources into education, preventive health care and environmental protection would improve the quality of life more than either a reduction or growth of current spending patterns. (Of course, higher national income might allow even more spending in these fields.)


Indeed it is not clear that any aspect of public policy can affect some of the aspects of QoL. There are surely strict limits to how far governments can improve personal relationships, satisfaction with leisure activities or personal development.


Where improving the non-income components of QoL will involve a reduction in national income and therefore in personal income (or just in personal income, for example through a reduction in working hours) the trade-off between income and the other components of QoL is crucial. People may be willing to substitute some of their income for an improvement in other aspects of QoL, but they may not. (Experience of the demand for reduced working hours suggests caution here, as does the unpopularity of taxes.)


There may be a particular problem in an increasingly competitive global economy. Some policies to improve QoL, such as in increased job satisfaction and reduced working hours (and stricter environmental regulation) may raise costs in such a way as to seriously undermine competitiveness. The trade-off may then become, not just a marginal income loss but a substantial income and employment loss, of a kind which would clearly reduce QoL. There may actually be little scope for marginal trade-offs: they will perforce become large trade-offs, and then unacceptable.


Whatever people’s actual trade-offs, of course, it will always be possible for the social critic to challenge these. Many Greens want to argue that people would in fact have a higher QoL if they traded off income for time or environmental goods or personal development, even though they do not realise this now. This is a perfectly legitimate position.


Consumption and the Quality of Life


The missing question in all this is how consumption is related to QoL. It is generally assumed in the QoL literature that consumption improves people’s QoL, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. But is this so? How much consumption actually adds to QoL? It is arguable that much consumption in industrial societies simply maintains the social position of households, fitting them out with the basic prerequisites of participation in a society in which everyone else is also buying more. If the social pressures to consume as the basis of social participation were reduced, people wouldn’t need to buy some of what they currently do.


If we can in this way distinguish between genuinely QoL-enhancing consumption and participation-maintaining consumption, and reduce the requirements of the latter, we may find that the contribution of income to QoL is not as important as generally thought. This however cannot be done by individuals. The question is, What are the social and institutional processes by which it might occur?


From the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here


reader table of contents