Quality of Life and Geography

How Do We Measure the Quality of Life?

man and woman smiling on surfboard
AleksandarNakic/E+/Getty Images

Perhaps the most important aspect of living that we sometimes take for granted is the quality of life that we receive by living and working where we do. For instance, the ability for you to peruse these words through the use of a computer is something that might be censored in some Middle Eastern countries and China. Even our capability to walk safely down a street is something that some countries (and even some cities in the United States) may lack.

Identifying areas with the highest quality of life offers an important view of cities and ​countries,while providing information for those hoping to relocate.

Measuring Quality of Life By Geography

One way of looking at a place's quality of life is by the amount of output it produces each year. This is especially handy in the case of a country considering many countries have varying degrees of production, differing resources, and distinctive conflicts and problems within them. The major way of measuring a country's output per year is by looking at the country's gross domestic product, or GDP.

The GDP is the amount of goods and services produced within a country annually and is typically a good indication of the amount of money flowing in and out of the country. When we divide a country's total GDP by its total population, we get GDP per capita which reflects what each individual of that country takes home (on average) per year.

The idea is that the more money we have the better off we are.

Top 5 Countries with Largest GDPs

The following are the top five countries with the largest GDPs in 2010 according to the World Bank:

1) United States: $14,582,400,000,000
2) China: $5,878,629,000,000
3) Japan: $5,497,813,000,000
4) Germany: $3,309,669,000,000
5) France: $2,560,002,000,000

Countries with Highest-Ranked GDP Per Capita

The five highest-ranked countries in terms of GDP per capita in 2010 according to the World Bank:

1) Monaco: $186,175
2) Liechtenstein: $134,392
3) Luxembourg: $108,747
4) Norway: $84,880
5) Switzerland: $67,236

It seems that small developed countries are ranked the highest in terms of per capita income. This is a good indicator to see what the average salary is of a country, but can be a bit misleading since these small countries are also some of the richest and, therefore, must be the most well off. Since this indicator can be a bit distorted due to the population size, there exist other indicators to show quality of life.

Human Poverty Index

Another metric for looking at how well-off a country's people are is to take into consideration the Human Poverty Index (HPI) of the country. The HPI for developing countries represents quality of life by formulating the probability of not surviving to age 40, the adult literacy rate, and the average amount of the country's population who have little to no access to clean drinking water. While the outlook for this metric is seemingly dismal, it does provide important clues as to what countries are better off.

Follow this link for the 2010 report in PDF format.

There is a second HPI that is used mostly for those countries that are considered "developed". The United States, Sweden and Japan are good examples. The aspects that are formulated for this HPI are the probability of not surviving to age 60, the number of adults lacking functional literacy skills, the percentage of ​the population with income below the poverty line, and the rate of unemployment lasting longer than 12 months.

Other Measures and Indicators of Quality of Life

A well-known survey that attracts a lot of international attention is the Mercer Quality of Living Survey. The annual list places New York City with the baseline score of 100 to act as the "median" for all other cities to compare with. The rankings consider many different aspects from cleanliness and safety to culture and infrastructure.

The list is a very valuable resource for ambitious companies looking to set up an office internationally, and also for employers to decide on how much to pay at certain offices. Recently, Mercer began to factor in environmental friendliness into their equation for cities with the highest qualities of life as a means of better qualifying what makes a great city.

There exist a few unusual indicators for measuring quality of life as well. For example, the king of Bhutan in the 1970's (Jigme Singye Wangchuck) decided to overhaul the Bhutanese economy by having each member of the country strive for happiness as opposed to money. He felt that GDP was rarely a good indicator of happiness as the indicator fails to take into account environmental and ecological improvements and their effects, yet includes defense expenditures that rarely benefit a country's happiness. He developed an indicator called Gross National Happiness (GNH), which is somewhat difficult to measure.

For instance, while GDP is an easy tally of goods and services sold within a country, GNH doesn't have much for quantitative measures. However, scholars have tried their best to make some sort of quantitative measurement and have found a country's GNH to be a function of the well-being of a human in economic, environmental, political, social, workplace, physical, and mental terms. These terms, when aggregated and analyzed, can define how "happy" a nation is. There are also a number of other ways to quantify one's quality of life.

Creative Cities is one such way where the emphasis is placed on entrepreneurship and innovation across European (and some international) cities and their effect on living standards.

A second alternative is the genuine progress indicator (GPI) which is similar to GDP but instead looks to see if a country's growth has actually made people better off in that nation. For instance, if the financial costs of crimes, environmental degradation, and natural resource losses are higher than the financial gains made through production, then the country's growth is uneconomic.

One statistician who has created a way to analyze trends in data and growth is the Swedish academic Hans Rosling. His creation, Gapminder Foundation, has compiled plenty of useful data for the public to access, and even a visualizer, which allows for a user to look at trends over time. It is a great tool for anyone interested in growth or health statistics.