Pattern #49


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Quality of Life Indicators Card - Version 1


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Quality of Life Indicators

Credit: Christophe Boisvieux – Permission granted until 2022

For communities and societies to generate long-term broad benefits they need some overall feedback to track how they are doing over time. So promote the design, compilation and tracking—by experts, officials and the public—of statistics that measure factors a community or society considers signify their quality of life.

Related: 11 Communal Intelligence, 23 Expertise on Tap (not on top), 26 Full Cost Accounting, 27 Full Spectrum Information, 30 Grounding in Fundamental Needs, 33 Iteration, 40 Nature First

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

With quality of life statistics we are creating a feedback loop.

I may be working my way along trying to make life better for me and my family and things may be good for me or bad for me but I don’t know how that fits in with the larger dynamic that is going on with my whole community. We know people have very different experiences of life – we have different classes and other differences – so let’s have something that shows how we are doing overall as a community.

The measure that we have now for our life together is largely economic – the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which used to be the Gross National Product (GNP). It’s basically all the money which is spent in the society. There is an assumption that the more money everyone spends, the more people are enjoying life. The more stuff there is, the happier people are. The more goods and services are moving around the society, the happier everyone is.

There is a way in which that’s true, because up to a point there is such a thing as having too little. But then there is also such a thing as having too much. Various surveys have shown that between too little and too much there is a realm where there’s basically enough physical stuff. And at that point our happiness is basically about our relationships, our creativity, our health, and a bunch of other less material things. That has inspired a critique of the GDP and out of that critique have grown many interesting alternative indicators that try to more insightfully measure the actual quality of our lives.

There are a lot of professional people particularly at the international level – the UN, the World Bank, the OECD, and so on – working on this.  These large institutions have generated indicators and statistics that attempt to measure quality of life in developmental terms. That of course means Western economic developmental terms.  These indicators expand beyond GDP but are still focused on the consumer – who has enough, who’s living longer, infant mortality, and so on. These are all standards that we have in the West for what constitutes development, and that is what’s used in most of those measures.

But there’s also a movement at the community level: How do we think about this together in and as our community, given the resources we have, our culture and traditions, and so on: What constitutes our collective quality of life? There are several examples of people and of communities that have come together and decided they want to have a certain measure institutionalized. In Seattle a community determined how many salmon in their rivers they consider as desirable. They do a salmon count and the number of salmon in the rivers indicates the health of their ecosystem. They take that as one measure of their life quality and they like that because salmon is somehow a symbol for their quality of life. Other communities would never have the number of salmon as a measure of quality of life because they don’t have rivers or a salmon population.

When people create their own measure of life quality, they own it and they often participate in gathering the data to compile the measurement each time. Such efforts can pull the community together as well as provide that feedback loop to show them how they’re doing.

If we are trying to have long-term broad benefit, this is an obvious way to support that. If the statistics of our quality of life that we have chosen or developed are rising, then we’re doing something that is good, that is supporting our quality of life. We know we have gotten benefits and now we should do more to support that. If such a measure is going down, we need to look at what we are doing or participating in to cause it to go down and fix that so that over time it will get better and better.  That is a strong indication of the long-term broad benefit we’re looking for. So this is a way of trying to measure what it is that’s going on that we are doing that satisfies our definition of being wise together, about our lives and our futures.

Video Introduction (10 min)

Examples and Resources

Measuring Community Health (a story of Sustainable Seattle)

There are many different versions of quality of life indicators. Bhutan – the tiny little Buddhist country in the Himalayas – has created a Gross National Happiness statistic. It includes both a bunch of factors that are similar to regular development factors and it also has themes having to do with their prayers. There’s a lot of Buddhist religious practices that are part of their Gross National Happiness statistic.

There’s a Gross National Wellness statistic which I believe was inspired by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness statistic, but it doesn’t have any spiritual dimensions in it.

And there’s a Genuine Progress Indicator developed by a nonprofit which is one of the more broadly used and referred to “better life indices”.

The Economist magazine has an Economist Intelligence Unit and uses measures like the Calvert Henderson Quality of Life indicators developed by the Calvert Fund and Hazel Henderson who is a green economist.

And then there’s many communities who have created their own measures. In my recent research it looks like many of the community quality-of-life projects are now connected to health and wellness efforts more than a generic indicator. Many of the quality of life indicators that I’ve been familiar with have more of a “green community” feeling, like how do we downshift from a consumer economy to the more implicit, nonmaterial things that make life good.

I am less familiar with the developmental indicators which are currently much more broadly used than the ones which are tied to community health and wellness, but they are out there.

In a wise democracy – to the extent we are a democracy and to the extent that experts are therefore on tap and not on top – which is another one of our patterns – we use experts to help us form the kinds of measures that we want to have. They also help us gather the information that constitutes the periodic quantities associated with those statistics. But we are the people who decide collectively what indicators we want so that they do measure what we value. Part of why (in a wise democratic system) we have experts on tap and not on top is because we, the people, are experts in the values of our community: we are experts in what we want, and that is fundamental.

The traditional specialist experts are people who give us information to help us decide how to get what we want or how to measure what we want. Their information is very useful, but underneath all that is what we want, what we need, and what our values are. WE get to answer those questions and those answers guide our democracy.

So these quality of life indicators are a really good realm within which to have experts and ordinary citizens working together, both developing indicators and then tracking them and being able to find out what we need to do to get those indicators going up so that our quality of life is going up, up, up.

And if we see the statistic going up when many of us are miserable – as is true so often nowadays with the GDP – we can say, “Wait a minute! There is something wrong with these indicators. This is an imaginary improvement. We need to change the indicators to more accurately indicate what is most important to us, what we value, and what it feels like to actually live our lives!” Are these good lives, or are they messed up lives? It is like having the Gross Domestic Product growing while so many of us are miserable: that tells us a lot. Similarly, but in the opposite way, there are very poor communities that have a low GDP yet where the people are smiling a lot and they’re happy. That tells us the same thing – basically that those indicators don’t really indicate what creates wellbeing and what doesn’t.

We want the quality of life indicators to really measure what’s going on that is valuable to us and that actually makes us smile and makes us happy to be alive. And that’s different for different communities in different places at different times. So these also need to be flexible over time.