Next Big Question: The Best Measures Of A Good Life?

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28th May 2009, 12:08pm - Views: 453

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Australia and other Western nations do not represent the leading edge of national progress

and human development, argues Australia21 Director, Richard Eckersley.

‘The dominant

indicators of human development do not measure the social qualities that influence the more

personal and intimate aspects of life’ he says. 'And it is these qualities that profoundly affect

people's wellbeing and quality of life'.

His views are included in an article 'Is the West really the best?' published this week in the

latest issue of an OECD newsletter, 'Measuring the progress of societies'.* As a group, Western

nations score highest on most, if not all, of the indicators usually used to measure human

development: life expectancy, happiness and satisfaction, wealth, education, governance,

personal freedom, human rights.

But Mr Eckersley challenges these indicators, to the extent that they suggest continuing on this

developmental path will improve people's quality of life.  'The reasons are that life expectancy

is not a valid measure of overall health; happiness may not be comparable across cultures and

does not cover the all the attributes of healthy people or societies; and other common

measures, being mainly structural and institutional, do not adequately reflect the cultural and

moral qualities that shape the more intimate aspects of life, and so are central to wellbeing.'

For all the positive qualities of Western societies, most of their people do not believe life is

getting better. In Australia, surveys show about twice as many people think quality of life is

getting worse as think it is getting better. A 2006 survey found 61% of people felt that for most

people in their country, life was getting worse. Britain's Joseph Rowntree Foundation found in

its consultations, 'a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society'.

The top concerns were: a decline in community; individualism, consumerism and greed; and a

decline in values. 

'The evidence shows that material progress does not simply and straightforwardly make us

richer, so giving us the freedom to live as we wish. Rather, it comes with an array of cultural

and moral prerequisites and consequences that affects profoundly how we think of the world

and ourselves, and so the choices we make. These choices are not, collectively, optimising

human health, wellbeing and potential. Measures of progress need to reflect this reality.'

'Developing a better model of human development and better measures of the good life has

important implications for national priorities, and virtually every aspect of public policy', says

Mr Eckersley.

This question is part of Australia21’s ‘Next Big Question’ project – for more information go to Mr Eckersley is a director and fellow of

Australia 21, a non-profit research company, and a visiting fellow at the Australian National


* Richard Eckersley's article is available at:

For more information: Richard Eckersley 02 6281 0648/

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