Quality of life (QOL) is a term used by politicians, journalists, and social scientists to distinguish differences in objective and subjective social well-being among individuals and between different units of government. Most often, it is used to measure and compare differences in the satisfaction of fundamental social and psychological needs.
However, most QOL researchers do not try to justify the indicators used to measure differences in life quality. Rather, they often explain their selection on the basis of commonly held standards of economic, social, environmental, health, and political well-being. This is why other researchers and interested parties often contest and dispute their results. Thus, QOL studies usually reflect both a conscious and unconscious mobilization of political and social bias.
Interest in life-quality differences is especially high among Americans and residents of developed countries. Perhaps one reason is the high level of social mobility found in advanced industrial democracies. Each year, approximately 20 percent of all Americans change their place of residence, frequently to different metropolitan areas and states than those in which they formerly lived. Most move for jobs and better salaries. Others move for reasons of climate and health. Still others may seek a new start in life, a more satisfying lifestyle, or residential proximity to family and friends. Whatever the reason, Americans, especially newly arrived immigrants, continue to be a highly mobile people, as evidenced by the growing numbers who have migrated from colder to warmer climates, from metropolitan to nonmetropolitan areas, and more recently, from second and third world countries, to the first world. Public concern over life-quality differences is therefore natural and perhaps inevitable.
For many Americans, the quality of life can be largely defined in terms of their economic welfare (i.e., the bundle of goods and services they command in the free market). Indeed, until the economic recession that began in December 2007, the rising levels of material well-being attained in the United States during the past century greatly reinforced the prevailing faith in democratic capitalism and “the power of economic affluence to elevate the good life in America.” (Novak; Campbell, 2) For others who deplore the blatant materialism and rampant individualism of the age, the quality of life is better measured by postmaterialist values including the livability of a community, the humanity of government, the purity of the environment, personal and community health, and the amenities that promote personal growth and development.
Thus, there is a strong subjective component to the way in which many Americans assess the quality of their lives. Ironically, most studies attempting to relate objective life quality conditions with subjective measures of life satisfaction have found either weak or nonexistent relationships. As John Milton observed in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Clearly, objective well-being does not necessarily lead to personal happiness. Nonetheless, studies suggest that richer people tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer.
Quality of life studies also suggest that the overall quality of life in states and communities can be linked to differences in racial composition, economic development, and culture. Using an overall index of life quality developed by Ben-Chieh Liu for 243 small, medium, and large U.S. metropolitan areas, Joel Lieske finds that three indicators explain 65 to 79 percent of the variation. These include percent black, percent high school educated, and an index of political moralism based on Daniel Elazar’s cultural typology. These results and others suggest that the overall quality of life is higher in metropolitan areas where residents are less racially and ethically diverse. Second, the results suggest the priority of human development over purely economic development. Third, all things equal, the results indicate that moralistic (participant) cultures do the most to enhance the overall quality of life, individualistic (commercial) cultures do the next most, and traditionalistic (hierarchical) cultures do the least. Overall, the quality of life in U.S. metropolitan areas and the American states depends fundamentally on the quality of the people who inhabit them.
- Campbell, Angus. The Sense of Well-being in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
- Elazar, Daniel. The American Mosaic. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.
- Inglehart, Ronald, and Christian Welzel. Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Ladd, Carl Everett. “Traditional Values Regnant.” Public Opinion 1 (1978): 45–49.
- Lieske, Joel. “The Correlates of Life Quality in U.S. Metropolitan Areas.” Publius 20, no. 1 (Winter 1990): 43–54.
- Liu, Ben-Chieh. Quality of Life Indicators in U. S. Metropolitan Areas. New York: Praeger, 1976.
- Maslow, Abraham. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper, 1954.
- Novak, Michael. “Mediating Institutions.” Public Interest 68 (1982): 3–20.
- Schattschneider, E. E. The Semi-sovereign People. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960.
- Schneider, Mark. “The Quality of Life in Large Metropolitan Areas: Objective and Subjective Social Indicators.” Social Indicators Research 1, no. 4 (1975): 495–509.
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