Quality of Life: Definition, Measures, and Examples
How is “quality of life” defined and what determines it? Read on to learn about the theory and research surrounding quality of life and tips for improving yours.
*This page may include affiliate links; that means we earn from qualifying purchases of products.
Do you have a good quality of life? What exactly does quality of life refer to? Does quality of life simply refer to happiness or is it more complicated than that? (Hint: it’s more complicated than that, as we will see below.) In this article, we'll talk about different viewpoints and measures so you can get a better sense of what "quality of life" means.
Before you get started, we also thought you might be interested in our well-being quiz. It'll tell you a bit about your current level of well-being.
Or, if you're an entrepreneur, counselor, or coach, you can download our Wellness Business Growth eBook to get expert tips, tools, and resources to grow your business fast.
What is Quality of Life? (A Definition)
Quality of life is discussed in various fields of study, including psychology, international development, economics, and healthcare. The term can refer to different constructs depending on the context in which it is used. For this reason, and possibly frustratingly, there is no single widely agreed-upon definition of quality of life.
Having said that, the World Health Organization (WHO) provides us with a sense of direction by presenting one definition. They define 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” (who.int, n.d.). Because of the WHO’s international influence, their definition is significant - especially since it is used in much public and global health research. An important takeaway from their definition is that quality of life is a subjective measure of one’s well-being. Of course, even this key point is debated, with some researchers insisting that quality of life must involve objective as well as subjective measures (Karimi & Brazier, 2016).
While there are numerous ways of thinking about quality of life, for this article, we will focus predominantly on how the concept is relevant to you and your well-being. To this end, we will focus mostly on subjective measures, as well as health-related quality of life (HRQoL), which excludes non-health aspects of quality of life, such as economic and political circumstances. The main reason for this is that you likely have more control over your health-related quality of life (both physical and mental) than your country’s economic and political situation.
Why Do We Discuss Quality of Life?
Quality of life became a significant point of discussion in the fields of medicine and psychology during the 20th century, as scientific advances meant that research no longer needed to remain as focused on simply increasing life expectancy. Since the medical field had made huge advances in being able to keep people alive longer, theorists were able to be concerned with life quality as well as quantity. Questions arose such as whether to keep an individual alive as long as possible at the expense of quality of life. One’s overall health and well-being were deemed to involve more than just efficient biological functioning, which had implications both for treatment design and measurements of population health (Karimi & Brazier, 2016).
While definitions are tricky to pin down and often overlapping, quality of life and well-being are related. So in seeking better well-being for yourself, it can be helpful to look to the literature surrounding quality of life.
Factors That Contribute to Quality of Life
One way of thinking about quality of life that may help you assess your own is the extent to which you have the choice to live the kind of life that you want. Along these lines, many researchers, including political philosopher G. A. Cohen, have advocated for a quality of life theory based on “functionings” or “capabilities” - various aspects of an individual’s life that afford them the freedom to live a life that they choose (Nussbaum & Sen, 1993). The following factors are examples of aspects that help cultivate an individual’s freedom in life. Without some or all of these and similar factors, an individual is limited in a way, with less choice about how they can live their life.
It might be helpful to reflect on your quality of life through this lens. While some factors such as monetary wealth might be hard to change, many other factors can be addressed. For example, do you think a lack of self-respect might be holding you back from pursuing certain goals or life paths? How might you be able to increase your self-respect and, in turn, open yourself up to more freedom and opportunity?
Quality of Life vs. Standard of Living
Before we continue, let’s clarify two often-confused terms: quality of life and standard of living.
Quality of life and standard of living are both related to well-being but refer to different specific constructs. Economists Bérenger and Verdier-Chouchane support the aforementioned theory of quality of life that centers on “capabilities” (2007). As we saw, this theory discusses an individual’s freedom to choose different paths in life, and as such involves much subjectivity. In contrast, the authors present “standard of living” as a more objective measure of well-being that centers on resource availability. By this definition, a country’s standard of living can be measured more easily than its quality of life. The two concepts are related, of course, as standard of living provides some of the basic factors needed to afford one the choices in life that define quality of life.
In the context of international development, researchers became interested in this quality of life construct when they realized that human flourishing depends on more than just the economic prosperity of a country. Wealth alone does not equate to well-being. For this reason, theorists have considered other contributors to quality of life such as access to healthcare, quality of education, work environment, human rights, etc. (Nussbaum & Sen, 1993).
How Is Quality of Life Measured in Psychology?
While we have seen that quality of life is discussed in various contexts, psychologists are particularly interested in how quality of life relates to psychological well-being. As in other contexts, there is no single, widely accepted definition of quality of life among psychologists. However, when discussing quality of life, psychologists do tend to focus less on basic factors such as money and food, and more on subjective mental experiences like positive emotion, life satisfaction, and overall psychological well-being (Sirgy, 2012). Those in the field of psychology also often discuss health-related quality of life (HRQoL), “those aspects of overall quality of life that can be clearly shown to affect health—either physical or mental” (CDC, n.d.).
Different psychologists have presented various quality of life indices ranging from general to specific. For example, the World Health Organization Quality of Life measure (WHOQOL) was developed by a large group of collaborators including many psychologists. The WHOQOL can be considered a broad measure of overall quality of life including the following six domains (WHOQOL Group, 1995):
Meanwhile, specific measures exist for these and other different domains within quality of life. Depending on your specific priorities and interests, you may start with a more general scale and then seek out any of these specific scales.
What is The Quality of Life Index?
As we have seen, there are numerous ways to measure quality of life, reflecting the numerous ways people conceptualize what quality of life is. There are countless lists of the best countries to live in that differ depending on which index is used and which dimensions of a country’s quality of life are assessed and incorporated. There is no one specific quality of life index that is widely used, but rather many different indices that different organizations design.
Some of The Countries With Best Quality of Life
While a country’s quality of life can be assessed using numerous criteria, the US News and World Report determined their list based on the following categories: “affordable, a good job market, economically stable, family friendly, income equality, politically stable, safe, well-developed public education system and well-developed public health system” (usnews.com, 2021). Their most recent rankings (as of 2021) list the following ten countries as having the best quality of life:
Video: Quality of Life: What Matters to You?
Watch this video to see another organization, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), discuss the different factors that play a role in determining quality of life.
While these lists differ depending on which index is used, certain countries (such as Scandinavian countries) do tend to fall somewhere near the top due to factors such as economic stability, accessible healthcare, and education: country-wide factors that trickle down to benefit the individual.
While it is certainly entertaining to read these sorts of lists, it is also important to remember that, within any country, quality of life will vary greatly. This list, for example, focuses on societal-level factors rather than individual-level factors. Individuals’ quality of life will still be influenced by factors not captured here, such as resilience and interpersonal relationships. Read on to discover some of these individual-level factors.
Tips for Measuring Your Quality of Life
In order to improve your quality of life, it might be helpful to first assess your quality of life in different domains and focus on domains where there is the most room for improvement. As a starting point, you can begin by considering the six domains chosen by the WHO (Physical, Psychological, Level of independence, Social relationships, Environment, and
Do these domains resonate with you? Do you feel that some of these domains are irrelevant to your life, or that other key domains are missing?
There aren’t necessarily right and wrong answers here since quality of life is so personal and, as we saw, even the experts don’t agree on what it encompasses. This exercise of reflecting may start to push you in the direction of what you personally need to focus on. While there is probably room for improvement in multiple domains, don’t overwhelm yourself - choose one or two domains that you feel will have the biggest impact.
Once you have determined the domain(s) that you want to focus on, really dig in and ask yourself how and why you might be falling short in these areas. Below are some examples of questions, based on some of the WHO’s domains, to get you thinking.
Tips for Improving Your Quality of Life
The next steps you take will depend on your answers to the above questions and any other questions you come up with for yourself. Improvement in any domain will not be a quick fix or overnight change. Instead, changes will be slow and gradual and likely based on minor habit changes in your everyday life.
For example, if you aren’t happy with the amount of exercise you are doing and want to increase it, start small by setting an attainable daily goal, such as a five-minute walk after finishing work. Once this is second nature, you can gradually increase this goal until the amount of exercise you are doing is consistently making you feel healthy and strong and contributing to your sense of a good quality of life.
Focus on aspects of your life that you have the power to change - there are plenty. Remember to track your progress, either by taking a quality of life assessment now and after a period of time, or by reflecting regularly in a journal. Seeing your progress can motivate you to continue your journey.
More Articles Related To Quality of Life
Here are a few additional articles that can help you keep learning about different things that contribute to better quality of life.
The theory and research behind quality of life are wide-reaching and nebulous, but that doesn’t mean reflecting on yours is a futile endeavor. By breaking it down into domains and assessing yourself formally or informally in each domain, you can determine how best to spend your time to improve your quality of life and overall well-being.