When most of us take stock of the world around us, it can be quite easy to be pessimistic and think about how bad everything is. On the other hand, we might see history as nothing but a steady march of progress towards what is good. It is a natural cognitive bias to idealize the past more than the present, but at the same time, we can over-exaggerate some advantages we have now. How do we cut through all this noise and truly figure out how good we’ve got it, and what the trends of progress can tell us? The solution is actually rather straightforward - find the most descriptive variable and measure it. In this case, that variable is quality of life.
“That’s all well and good, but what does ‘quality of life’ mean really?” You might ask. This is a good point because too often words get thrown around with emotional weight but have little meaning. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), quality of life is defined as a “broad multidimensional concept that usually includes subjective evaluations of both positive and negative aspects of life.” All-in-all, it is a tool to measure the general experience of one’s living state at a given time with their environment in mind, taking a look at psychological, social, economic, physical, and related health factors. It is important to measure this because it offers an objective standard to compare across times and locations to get an understanding of the trends. Without a quality of life index, we would just be guessing at the progress of society. Quality of life can be measured through metrics such as reported happiness, income, freedom, education, and health care, to name a few major ones.
If we want to get an idea of the direction of humanity’s development, what better way to do so than to look at the results of such development - modernity? Many Western countries have top results in the quality of life indicators, with some Nordic countries ranking among the top especially, but the important question is: have these countries peaked and are they going downhill from there? The most nuanced answer is some might be. Taking a look at one of the most developed countries in the world, the United States, we can see how in recent times, some things seem to actually be getting worse. Income inequality is on the rise according to an article from the personal finance site The Balance, youth mental health is on a decline according to non-profit Mental Health America, and a decrease in self-reported levels of happiness by World Value Survey.
Back up a second, we can’t measure the progress of society by looking at trends on a micro-scale alone, we need to consider the big picture! It is absurd to think that we have primarily regressed over the span of time, in actuality, we have progressed dramatically. Let me be more specific, according to Our World in Data, a nonprofit organization based from Oxford University, only 200 years ago, nearly 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty, today? Less than 10%. What about education? Of people 15 years and older, a little under 90% were illiterate, today? Around 10%. This trend can be witnessed across many other categories including health, freedom, child mortality, and more (all quality of life indicators).
Either way that we look at it, the progress of the quality of life of the average person is something that can be worked on. On the grand scale, we have been moving in a mostly positive direction, but surely, there are things to work on - equality, mental health, and global tensions to name a few subjects we could certainly pay a bit more attention to as a society. Luckily, the most recent generations are bringing in some much needed cultural changes such as a better work-life balance and an emphasis on holistic life satisfaction over professional growth alone. It’s hard to not be pessimistic in the face of the future, but the best that most of us can is to try and be the change that we want to see. What sort of change do you think is necessary, or have we been progressing along finely?
Amadeo, Kimberly. “The True Cause of Income Inequality in America.” The Balance, The Balance, 16 Dec. 2019, www.thebalance.com/income-inequality-in-america-3306190.
“HRQOL Concepts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 Oct. 2018, www.cdc.gov/hrqol/concept.htm.
Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: All Rounds - Country-Pooled Datafile Version: http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWVL.jsp. Madrid: JD Systems Institute.
Roser, Max. “The Short History of Global Living Conditions and Why It Matters That We Know It.” Our World in Data, ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts.
“The State of Mental Health in America: Mental Health America.” The State of Mental Health in America | Mental Health America, www.mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america.
“United States.” OECD Better Life Index, www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/united-states/.