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  • Quality of Life:What Does It Mean? How Should We Measure It?
  • Peter Singer (bio), Pavan Sukhdev (bio), Hon-Lam Li (bio), Madhu Suri Prakash (bio), Hellmuth Lange (bio), Susanna Baltscheffsky (bio), and Elizabeth Peredo (bio)

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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.

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Peter Singer on 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.

Pavan Sukhdev on 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."

Hon-Lam Li on 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 [End Page 4] 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...


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