Well-being and quality of life in a population, which are linked to factors such as standard of living, happiness, freedom and environmental health, are essential to economics and political science. Politicians are showing an increasing interest in developing a 'Gross National Happiness' index, similar to GDP.

Overview

Quality of life is a broad concept related to overall well-being within a society. The concept goes beyond living conditions approach, which tends to focus on material resources (money, access to goods and services) available to individuals and takes account of indicators such as happiness, the freedom to choose one's lifestyle and subjective well-being. The concept is thus multi-dimensional, and measured by both objective and subjective indicators. 

Whereas objective indicators of living standards are easily measurable, it is more difficult to assess the subjective measures. However, these form an integral part of an individual's perception of quality of life, and more data on them is needed for social policies and programmes. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed an international cross-culturally comparable instrument to assess quality of life covering six broad domains

  • Physical health; 
  • psychological health; 
  • level of independence; 
  • social relations; 
  • environment, and; 
  • spirituality/religion/personal beliefs. 

The organisation defines quality of life as "an individual's perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns. It is a broad-ranging concept affected in a complex way by the person's physical health, psychological state, personal beliefs, social relationships and their relationship to salient features of their environment."

Issues

"Challenges arising from low employment rates, an ageing population, changing family structures and social exclusion have put quality of life issues at the top of the EU social policy agenda," says the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound).

Lack of comparable data on the issue pushed Eurofound, in 2003, to launch the first comparative study on quality of life in 28 European countries. The pan-European Quality of life survey (EQLS) chose eight core areas for the survey, the first six examining objective circumstances and the last two subjective perception

  • The economic situation;
  • housing and local environment;
  • employment, education and skills;
  • household structure and family relations;
  • work-life balance;
  • health and health care;
  • subjective well-being, and; 
  • the perceived quality of society. 

The Quality of Life in Europe 
Report (2004) compares the EU-15 and the EU-10 with regards to objective and subjective well-being. The conclusions state that even if the EU-10 has higher numbers of people with upper secondary education than the EU-15, it is faced with lower living standards, worse housing and poorer working conditions, as well as low-quality public services.

The other striking difference is that EU-10 citizens reported a poor health status two-and-a-half times more than citizens living in the EU-15. According to the survey, the EU-10 citizens are also 'less happy' and satisfied than those from the EU-15, but still equally optimistic about the future. "There is a considerable gap in subjective well-being, echoing the gaps found in objective living conditions, especially economic resources and living standards, working conditions and health," the survey conclusions state. 

The report thus found that overall life satisfaction in a Europe of 28 is strongly linked with income levels and GDP per capita
: low levels of traditional economic indicators in the 12 new member states and Turkey are matched by low scores regarding life satisfaction. 

The majority of Europeans throughout the EU-27 agree that having a job provides not only income but also social contacts, self-esteem and a better quality of life. Those who have been unemployed for at least two years over the previous five years report lower satisfaction with life in general, with family life, with social life and with health than those who have been in continuous employment. 

With regard environmental indicators, such as pollution or lack of green space, or family ties and social support networks, there are no clear differences between the EU-25.

In fact, the survey reveals the existence of four European country groups faced with very different living conditions: 

  • The northern and central European member states;
  • the mediterranean member states (Greece, Portugal and Spain) together with the most well-off new member states (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Malta and Slovenia);
  • the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, and; 
  • Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey form a group apart as their quality of life in terms of objective and subjective well-being is "distinctly lower" than that of the EU-25. 

After the pan-European Quality of Life Survey, Eurofound conducted a series of in-depth reports on several individual indicators such as income inequalities and deprivationfamilies, work and social networkslife satisfaction, happiness and sense of belongingsocial dimensions of housingurban/rural differencesparticipation in civil society or quality of work and quality of life.

Positions

"We can't measure the challenges of the future with the tools from the past," said Commission President José Manuel Barroso

"GDP is a tool of the 1930s, which does not take into account sustainable consumption matters," said Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquín Almunia

"GDP measures the final market values of goods and services. While it is widely believed that people's wellbeing and quality of life improves as they get wealthier, economic wealth is not everything. Quality of life depends to a degree on the type of goods consumed, good access to healthcare, quality of education, family relations, the integrity of our public officials and the state of our environment. So, we should be able to measure these important objectives. GDP is not an indicator that measures wellbeing or welfare," said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas

Bruno S. Frey, Professor of Economic Policy and Non-Market Economics at University of Zurich underlined that well-being can't be measured by happiness, and that it would be an error if politicians tried to maximise happiness. "Life satisfaction indicators are important but let's let people decide on and find their own happiness." 

Professors Daniel Kahneman and Alan B. Krueger at Princeton University, New Jersey, think that a national well-being index could eventually be developed, as a complement to the National Income and Product Accounts. However, they think that it is not possible to measure 'Gross National Happiness' "in view of the present state of knowledge and limitations of subjective measurement". 

However, the UK and the Australian governments are committed to producing national measures of subjective well-being. 

David Cameron, the leader of the UK Conservative Party, has established a Quality of Life Policy Group to investigate all aspects linked to the quality of life. These include transport and housing; urban planning and the quality of public space; pollution, waste, biodiversity and the countryside; energy and climate change. The Policy Group has several working groups dedicated to each of the issues. The aim is to provide Conservatives, in July 2007, with an independent input on the issues related to quality of life.

Marco Grasso and Luciano Canova from the Milan University have compared the quality of life (QOL) indexes with the GDP per capita rankings in EU countries. "To be noted is the remarkable similarity between the QOL and GDP rankings, which means that income is in general a good proxy for the quality of life in the EU."

The 2007 Worldwide Quality of Living Survey by Mercer - Human Resource Consulting found that the European cities ranked among the top ten for quality of life are Zurich, Geneva, Vienna, Dusseldorf, Frankfort, Munich and Bern. The worldwide health and sanitation ranking 2007 puts the Nordic capitals Helsinki, Oslo and Stockholm among the top six.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's Worldwide quality-of-life index 2005: "When one understands the interplay of modernity and tradition in determining life satisfaction, it is then easy to see why Ireland ranks a convincing first in the international quality-of-life league table. It successfully combines the most desirable elements of the new - material well-being, low unemployment rates, political liberties - with the preservation of certain life satisfaction-enhancing, or modernity-cushioning, elements of the old, such as stable family life and the avoidance of the breakdown of community."

Timeline

  • The World Database of Happiness is an ongoing register of scientific research on the subjective enjoyment of life.
  • April 2007:  Results of the 2007 Worldwide Quality of Living survey (Mercer - Human Resource Consulting) published
  • 30 June 2007: OECD, the European Commission, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank decided to develop a new approach to measuring how societies are changing by using high quality, reliable statistics to assess progress in a range of areas affecting citizens' quality of life.
  • 19-20 Nov. 2007: Beyond GDP - measuring progress, true wealth and the wellbeing of nations- conference
  • 2007: The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions will carry out its second Quality of Life in Europe survey.
  • March 2008: European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research published a study on 'Happiness Across the Life Cycle'.
  • 14 May 2008: The Commission is set to adopt an action plan on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP).