Quality of Life, Wellbeing, and Standard of Living: Definitions and Common Usage
In embarking on our exploration of the arts and wellbeing, we researched formal definitions and common usage of several overlapping terms used in this larger field of inquiry: wellbeing, quality of life, and standard of living.
We found that there is a good deal of ambiguity around the meanings of these terms, and this lack of conceptual clarity has been called out repeatedly over the past 50 years. While we felt that the details of this debate were too esoteric to address in our feature article (which is intended for a broad audience of generalists), we want to make this information and our current understanding of the terms available to our dedicated Createquity Insider readers.
While antecedents of the social indicators movement can be traced back to the 1920s and 30s, efforts to measure how well people are doing really took off in the 1960s. Part of the ambiguity surrounding the concepts and terminology used to describe the objects of study results from the fact that researchers in several different fields—as varied as public health, economics, and psychology—took an interest in measuring wellbeing around the same time and without much exchange with their colleagues in other disciplines.
As early as 1973, researchers criticized the lack of conceptual clarity around the terms “quality of life” and “wellbeing.” David M. Smith argued that “wellbeing” should exclusively be used in reference to objective measures of a population’s living conditions, whereas “quality of life”—which to Smith held more evaluative connotations—should be used in reference to people’s self-reported, subjective assessments of their lives.
Despite Smith’s admonitions, it seems that the situation hadn’t improved much by the end of the 20th century. In 1999, Barbara K. Haas asserted that “the terms QOL [quality of life], satisfaction with life, functional status, and well-being can no longer be used interchangably.” Haas considered wellbeing to be one of a number of components of the larger concept quality of life, and contrary to Smith, she held that wellbeing should be reserved for subjective assessments of people’s lives.
A more recent attempt to disentangle the concept of wellbeing from that of quality of life from André Langlois and Dale Anderson defines both concepts as relationships between individuals and their environments. Quality of life is located in the objective realm, at the intersection of individual needs and external resources. Meanwhile, wellbeing results from the ability to take advantage of the available resources and experience satisfaction, which, again, places wellbeing in the subjective realm.
As of yet, it doesn’t seem that any of the attempts to tease out differences between wellbeing and quality of life and bring conceptual clarity to their definitions have had a lasting effect. In many instances the two terms continue to be used interchangeably. However, while there seems to be a general consensus that quality of life consists of both subjective and objective components, there is greater ambivalence about the meaning of wellbeing. Some authors use wellbeing as a synonym for quality of life and others use it in Haas’s sense to refer exclusively to self-reported, subjective assessments of people’s lives.
In the latter case, “wellbeing” might be said to function as shorthand for “subjective wellbeing,” another term that frequently appears in the literature. While there is controversy over the precise definition of “subjective wellbeing” as well (e.g., whether it refers to the affective experience of “happiness,” the cognitive assessment of satisfaction with one’s life, or a combination of both), the use of “subjective wellbeing” at least clarifies that objective measures (income, physical health, etc.) are not included in the mix.
“Standard of living” rarely appears in the controversies over the proper definitions and measurement techniques for wellbeing and quality of life. Indeed, there appears to be greater agreement about the definition of “standard of living.” The term generally refers to the wealth, material goods, and comforts available to an individual or a group, often simply measured as GDP per capita. In some cases, composite measures are developed to assess standards of living, but even then the constructs tend to be limited to objective measures, and primarily ones related to income and material wealth.
Studies of wellbeing and quality of life have garnered a lot of attention in recent years, in part because there is a growing consensus that the broad economic measures used to assess standard of living are unable tell the full story of how well people or countries are doing relative to others. However, standard of living has the benefit of conceptual clarity, and even crude measures such as GDP continue to be of significant influence in policy debates.
In drafting our article on wellbeing and the arts, we decided to treat wellbeing (in its broad sense) and quality of life as essentially equivalent, but to use wellbeing as the default term. However, since the article was published, we’ve come to understand that many readers primarily associate wellbeing with physical health and may have found our usage confusing.
Since we’re considering the improvement of overall wellbeing as a key function of a healthy arts ecosystem and thus central to Createquity’s mission, we’re likely to be discussing these issues in one form or another for years to come. Accordingly, we’re now considering reversing course and switching our terminology to quality of life, which may be more readily understood. Quality of life also has the advantage of clearly evoking a dimension of value that is complementary to measures like “lives saved.” Indeed, composite metrics like Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) provide an example of how quality of life has been used in very real and consequential day-to-day decisions (though not without controversy). As we contemplate this change, we’d appreciated input from Insider readers to get a sense of your interpretation of the terms.
BusinessDictionary.com, s.v. “standard of living.” http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/standard-of-living.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Wellbeing Concepts.” http://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/wellbeing.htm.
Dodge, Rachel, Annette P. Daly, Jan Huyton, and Lalage D. Sanders. “The Challenge of Defining Wellbeing.” International Journal of Wellbeing 2, no. 3 (2012): 222–35. Available at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0ahUKEwiwkce3quLJAhUjzoMKHe7EASsQFggdMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.internationaljournalofwellbeing.org%2Findex.php%2Fijow%2Farticle%2FviewFile%2F89%2F238%3Forigin%3Dpublication_detail&usg=AFQjCNF8fycR8DBb54bxf98Z4c4bd2s34A&sig2=zociomrBjOuNXVhuX8-Vdg.
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Fontinelle, Amy. “Standard Of Living Vs. Quality Of Life,” on Investopedia. http://www.investopedia.com/articles/financial-theory/08/standard-of-living-quality-of-life.asp.
Langlois, André, and Dale E. Anderson. “Resolving the Quality of Life/Well-Being Puzzle: Toward a New Model.” Canadian Journal of Regional Science 25, no. 3 (Autumn 2002): 501–12. Available at www.cjrs-rcsr.org/archives/25-3/langlois.pdf.
Merriam-Webster online, s.v. “Standard of Living.”
Noll, Heinz-Herbert. “Social Indicators and Quality of Life Research: Background, Achievements and Current Trends.” In Advances in Sociological Knowledge, edited by Nikolai Genov, 151–81. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2004. Available at https://books.google.com/books?id=Rt6tBAAAQBAJ&pg=PT2&dq=advances+in+sociological+knowledge+2004&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjDhbDywMbJAhVMjIMKHekhAT4Q6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q=advances%20in%20sociological%20knowledge%202004&f=false.
Scottish Government, St Andrew’s House. “Quality of Life and Well-Being: Measuring the Benefits of Culture and Sport: Literature Review and Thinkpiece.” Research Publications, January 20, 2006. Available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2006/01/13110743/0.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Standard of Living.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_of_living#cite_ref-1.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Quality-adjusted life year.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quality-adjusted_life_year.