In search of quality of life: progress, virtue and happiness

The vision of a ‘green’ society often focuses on quality of life and well-being for all its citizens. These ideas are evoked by way of a contrast with the quantity-oriented objectives of present day western consumer society: increasing personal financial wealth and individual consumption, economic growth and expanding business profitability. But just what is ‘quality of life’? Some interesting ideas and insights come from the perspectives of economics, philosophy and psychology.

Economists have tried to gauge quality of life using the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which is consciously designed as a counter to the familiar standard measure of total economic activity, Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As an indicator of economic and social ‘progress’, GDP is fairly useless because it merely delivers a summation of all spending, regardless of its nature. GPI is undoubtedly to be preferred because it adds in the economic value of unpaid work, and it subtracts negative factors such as crime, pollution and reductions in leisure time.

In an article in the LA Times, reproduced here, ecological economist Robert Costanza notes the significantly different trends to be seen in the way GDP and GPI are unfolding in the United States: “While the U.S. GDP has steadily increased since 1950 (with the occasional recession), GPI peaked about 1975 and has been relatively flat or declining ever since … This is a very different picture of the economy from the one we normally read about.” Taking the argument further, Costanza cites Herman Daly in making a causal link between these two observations, and says that continuing growth in GDP is now “actually reducing [U.S.] national well-being”.

More detailed information about GPI can be found here, along with a graph illustrating the trends Costanza is referring to.

This different measure of ‘progress’ certainly provides a welcome challenge to the widespread GDP-worship that occurs in the business pages of daily newspapers around the world. However, the use of quantitative means to evaluate a qualitative concept strongly suggests a fundamental mismatch between problem and methodology. By its very nature, the idea of quality of life is a complex, multifaceted concept influenced by both our cognitive and our emotional perceptions, and open to a wide variety of personal and social interpretations. It just doesn’t boil down to a number. We need to try another angle.

Philosophers have often pondered on the nature of happiness, and it is certainly a question that was actively discussed 2500 years ago. In an essay in Philosophy Today, Philip Cafaro writes that one important aspect of the debate, even in ancient Greek times, has been whether pleasure and physical satisfaction define our happiness, are an important part of it, or are simply irrelevant to happiness. While there were a wide range of views on this point among the Greek philosophers, “the major philosophical schools all preached limited consumption and disciplining appetite” because they accepted that the proper level of consumption was defined by the extent to which consumption contributed to “good human lives” (p.26).

For Plato and Aristotle, and for the Stoics as well as the Epicureans, as Cafaro explains, “the good life was equally a life devoted to right thinking and a life not devoted to wealth getting and sybaritism” (p.26). This view leads directly to the ancient Greek notion of eudaimonia, meaning happiness, wellbeing or flourishing understood in terms of ‘virtue ethics’. Cafaro provides a very simple interpretation of what that means today: “if our goal is to live well, we should consume less” (p.26).

In the context of environmental ethics, Cafaro recognises that this is different from the usual ethical arguments which suggest that we should cease or limit any actions that damage the ecosphere simply because of its intrinsic worth. What Cafaro advocates is a much more human-centred ethical position with an ecological spin-off: in order to improve our own wellbeing we should cease or limit our consumption. He maintains that “greater attention to our true happiness would do as much to protect wild nature as the greater acceptance of the intrinsic value of wild nature” (p.27).

Both of these arguments taken together often reinforce each other. But not always: self-denial for the sake of the environment does not necessarily enhance human happiness and, for just that reason, complete self-denial almost certainly does not make for a popular political creed. Promoting both perspectives – which we can perhaps characterise as ecological wisdom and social justice – seems to be essential to a successful green politics, but so does the ability to balance them where necessary. The need for effective ways to strike the balance between ecological wisdom and social justice is one of the challenges of pragmatic politics that greens must accept.

Our third perspective on quality of life comes from psychology. Counselling psychologist Michael Steger has written about his “happiness research” in a recent issue of New Scientist magazine. Steger and colleagues studied 65 undergraduates, using daily happiness questionnaires to assess how they were feeling, and daily activity records that recorded ‘virtue-building’ (eg volunteering time) and hedonistic behaviour (eg getting drunk). The principal finding is that the more virtue-building activity the students engaged in, the happier they said they were; moreover, there appeared to be no association between hedonistic behaviour and happiness.

Such studies offer an interesting insight into the cause-and-effect relationship between personal behaviour and personal happiness. But in reflecting on Steger’s happiness research and Cafaro’s environmental virtue ethics, it is important to remember that we cannot presuppose individual freedom of action. Regardless of one’s wish to act in a certain way, the ability to act virtuously (or hedonistically for that matter) is not free of constraints: socio-economic status, health status (eg addictions), marginalised status (eg, indigenous communities, women, youth), level of disposable income, education about and awareness of consequences, the desire to meet family commitments, the need to meet social expectations, and perhaps even just the amount of time available in our lives to do what we wish.

These constraints play a very significant role in individual well-being. The ‘self-discrepancy’ theory of E.T. Higgins suggests that if there is a significant gap between the ideal self (who I would like to be) or the ought self (who it is my duty to be) and the actual self, a considerable degree of dissatisfaction, unhappiness and even shame can result. One might even suggest that achieving happiness consists of minimising this gap. But Higgins’ theory also indicates that those people whose reality is far from their own ideals, simply because of the constraints that beset their lives, would find it very difficult to achieve a sense of quality of life.

This again signals the emancipatory dimension to striving for wellbeing and quality of life. It is the reason why social factors are a key part of the GPI discussed earlier: quality of life is not simply about my personal happiness, my personal progress in life, or my personal virtue – quality of life only makes sense when our lives are understood in their social context.


Philip Cafaro (1998) Less is more: economic consumption and the good life. Philosophy Today, 42(1), 26-39.

Robert Costanza (2008, March 10) Our Three-Decade Recession: The American quality of life has been going downhill since 1975. Los Angeles Times.

E. Tory Higgins (1987) Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319-340.

Michael Steger (2008, March 22) In pursuit of happiness. New Scientist, 2648, p.17.


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  1. Pingback: Feel Good Wednesday: “In Pursuit of Happiness” | Memoirs of a Kenyan