The idea of quality of life is very twentieth-century. It sparks associations with ideas like statistical quality control and total quality management. It is the idea that entire human lives can be objectively modeled, measured and compared in meaningful ways. That lives can be idealized and normalized in ways that allow us to go beyond comparisons to absolute measures. That lives can be provisioned from cradle-to-grave. That an insistence on a unique, subjective evaluation of one’s own life is something of a individualist-literary conceit.
I suspect the phrase itself is a generalization of the older notion of modern conveniences, a phrase you frequently find in early twentieth-century writing. It referred to the diffusion of various technologies into everyday pre-industrial life, from running hot and cold water in bathrooms and garbage collection to anesthetics and vaccines.
That conception of the quality of life, as the sum total of material conveniences acquired and brutalities of nature thwarted through technology, seems naive today. But with hindsight, it was much better than what it evolved into: baroque United Nations statistics that reflect institutionally enabled and enforced scripts, which dictate what people ought to want.
In 2013, the concept of quality of life is effectively drowning in the banality of self-reported statistical surveys based on unreconstructed concepts overloaded with institutionalized connotations.
Just looking at (for example) the Gallup well-being survey categories — career, social, financial, physical, community — depresses me. It’s not just that the words themselves denote banal categories with which to think about life. You know that they also have the force of committee interpretations by statisticians and economists behind them. Committees that probably included no writers of imaginative fiction or speculative philosophy.
The very consensual familiarity of those concepts, which makes them suitable for designing metrics and assessments, makes them useless in actually figuring out what quality of life means. The idea that you take a survey repeatedly over a long period of time, with thousands of others, to figure out whether you are living a quality life is in the not-even-wrong category. That mental model is suitable for tracking your weight or height. Not for quality of life.
An indicator of the sort of absurdity that results when you take such thinking seriously is the research finding that money does not buy happiness beyond a point. Or more precisely, that subjective self-reported “happiness” does not correlate with income above $75,000 or so, in the US.
Why is the hypothesis that we earn incomes in order to buy happiness from some sort of standard-life-script store even a reasonable one, worthy of research?
How about money as a creative stab at attaining retirement security using something other than a tax-law-incentivized 401(k) plan? Money as planning for kids’ futures outside of colleges? Money as a Plan B for health emergencies that occur while uninsured? Money as flexibility in when and how you can choose to do stuff? Money as a necessary kind of fuel in status races we instinctively engage in? Money as the capacity to spiral into stoned, drunken debauchery? Money as something to blow on a yacht in order to investigate the idea that sailing in luxury around the world might be create meaning in life? Money for individuals to invest in building both useless first-world apps and Mars rockets?
In short, money as freedom to decide what quality of life means to us?
To start with the can-money-buy-happiness question is to assume you have a valid framework within which to make sense of what people might mean by a loaded-and-focused word like happiness.
To measure the ability to pursue quality of life in terms of income is to assume the validity of prevailing scripts that classify quality of life as a consumption commodity. Something to be acquired through some mix of direct provisioning by others, and cash outlays within restricted categories.
The problem goes deeper than this artificial separation. How is it meaningful to ask how income correlates with happiness without asking precisely how much control we have in spending it? Could the $75,000 threshold discovered merely be an artifact of enforced consumption rigidity in middle and upper-class scripts, where marginal income dollars above that amount are already earmarked for socially expected and institutionally incentivized expenses (think home-buying and saving for college)? A sort of “cost of doing business” in a particular social class? Do people who flout those norms manage to move the threshold higher? Or are they penalized so harshly that they regret flouting those norms? Do mavericks see increasing happiness levels up to $200,000 instead of $75,000? Or does the threshold drop because of the increased financial burdens that come with breakaway scripts?
Why isn’t the most important financial threshold in the inner lives of many, rich or poor, the subjective notion of fuck-you money, the first thing to study? Why isn’t there a major UN study tracking what people consider fuck-you money? Why aren’t Nobel-winning behavioral economists designing clever experiments to tease out how we think about this quantity? It is, after all, our main subjective measure of how not-free we perceive ourselves to be.
Nobody, other than bureaucrats who fund research and economists, asks the question “how much income is needed to be happy?” We already know that talking about happiness without talking about what trade-offs we are making to pursue it is meaningless. The rest of us real people ask the question “how much wealth is required to be free of scripts that dictate what trade-offs you are allowed to make?”
It does not really matter if you generalize beyond income to various in-kind quality-of-life elements like a clean environment or access to healthcare. If you are not measuring prevailing levels of freedom you are measuring nothing relevant. Until people start answering $0 to the fuck-you-money question across the planet, you can be sure that they do not perceive themselves to be free enough to properly pursue quality of life.
The interesting question is not what money doesn’t buy us that economists assume we do, but what it does buy us that we seek it so obsessively.
At the other end of the spectrum from happiness-money and fuck-you-money, we have dollar-a-day politics.
McDonald’s was recently excoriated for daring to actually engage the question of how to live on a minimum wage in the United States.
On the other side of the planet in India, a politician recently found himself in trouble for suggesting that it was still possible to have a hearty meal in Mumbai for Rs. 12 (about $0.20), as part of an ongoing debate to redefine the poverty line at Rs. 33.30 per day (about $0.54).
It isn’t that these suggestions are offensive in and of themselves. I actually found the McDonald’s chart thought-provoking (even though the motives behind it are probably not-quite-best-faith) and the Indian politician’s remark a reasonable enough factoid to throw into the debate.
The problem isn’t specific stupid numbers or specific ideas about how to live on certain incomes. The problem is that we have stupid discussions about numbers because we cannot have intelligent discussions about what quality of life means. Our culture forces us to argue about how others ought to pursue quality-of-life. You there, save for college. You there, buy a house. You there, get your calories and daily protein requirement before you get your psychadelics.
Both McDonald’s and the Indian politician might have sparked far more interesting debates if they had included the local price of pot in their speculations about the budgets of others. But of course, they couldn’t, because they would have faced even greater punishment for tangibly highlighting freedom as potentially being a component of a quality life.
It is easy to dismiss such ideas as the criticism of hard-working bureaucrats in thankless jobs by first-world residents working the top of their Maslow hierarchy of needs. Perhaps those navigating the bottom of the hierarchy of needs in Africa benefit from hard-nosed attempts to reduce poetic thoughts about freedom into clean-edged models and metrics.
The problem is, this approach doesn’t work in Africa either. And it is paternalistic to suggest that it does.
The basics. It is perhaps the favorite phrase of aid workers working to bring modern conveniences to the millions who lack it, starting with the basics, such as clean water and early childhood healthcare.
It is not that the act of providing the basics is itself a paternalistic act. But the notions of quality-of-life informing the act can make it so, and radically affect the structure of societies that start to emerge as the provisioning mechanisms harden into institutions. We know this because over a century, that is precisely what happened in the “developed” world that so many are miserable in today.
The disturbing paternalism in the idea lies in the implicit assumption that those who lack clean water can be treated as desperate water-seeking zombies with no higher aspirations. That when water is the immediate priority, it is the also the only priority and the most important priority. That it would be somehow wrong of a poor person to choose to spend money on a temporary escape by watching a movie for instance, before prioritizing clean water. That it would be even wronger for that person to succumb to hopelessness and find solace in getting stoned for a while.
When you actually meet people living in tough conditions, you realize that they don’t exactly make up dreams for their lives in some UN-approved sequence; water first, food next, healthcare third, money fourth, philosophy when I am rich, alcohol and marijuana never. With “democracy” injected somewhere along the an S-curve from pre-industrial squalor to post-industrial anomie.
Humans are capable of nurturing rockstar dreams even while they are schlepping their twenty-miles-a-day to fetch water. There is a reason there is music and art in all societies, not just the privileged ones.
Basketball — hardly a “basic” — has arguably done more to help the Black community in America heal the scars of slavery and overcome the tribulations of life in violent ghettos than clumsy efforts to provide the “basics.” In India, I suspect denial of access to street cricket and Bollywood music would cause riots faster than turning off the water supply. We are willing to trade running tap water for a mile-long walk if the alternative is to give up TV.
Even for those literally living on less than a dollar a day, the quality of life is about more than a hard daily scramble for the “basics.” Humans strive to live full lives whatever their situation. This requires freedom.
Fear of this fact is at the root of all authoritarian attempts to model and measure the quality of life.
I sometimes get the feeling that benefactors who set out to help others navigate by their own notions of what constitutes unsightly and smelly squalor in their lives rather than what counts as quality in beneficiaries’ lives.
We are afraid that if we allow those with less the right to choose what quality of life means to them, they may make choices that lower the quality of our lives. If a slum-dweller chooses to use resources to buy a TV rather than address the squalor that intrudes on the visual and olfactory lives of the rich, there is a problem. A problem to be addressed by taking away cash and offering in-kind “aid” in the form of housing and sanitation projects that conform to the aesthetic priorities of the rich.
Worse yet, a minimum-wage worker might find balanced quality-of-life by doing her work at a fast-food chain with visibly sullen reluctance, and finding relief elsewhere. A problem to be solved by offering motivational seminars in the workplace and requiring fast-food workers to sport duchenne smiles and pieces of flair while they are visible to the rich.
And perhaps worst of all, the slum-dweller, once basic needs are taken care of, might use his next few marginal dollars to feed his now-foregrounded resentments with radical literature rather than spend money on showers, haircuts and turning his shanty into less of an eyesore.
I suspect the fear of such choices is what makes us fearful of simply giving the poor money rather than solutions to what we perceive as the problems in their lives. Money has its problems as a proxy for freedom, but it is better than offering a sandwich to a homeless person because you suspect he might use the equivalent amount of money to buy a beer instead.
The free response of less privileged individuals to perceptions of relative deprivation is not always what the more privileged hope it will be. If I were poor, and had to choose between eating more protein and escaping the hopelessness of my life for a few hours a day by watching TV while stoned, I’d probably choose the stoned TV-watching. Like millions of actual poor people seem to. Along with their $75,000+ middle-class peers.
This should tell us something: whatever its definition, quality of life cannot be a partial notion that focuses on “basics” and tables questions of freedom and self-actualization for future discussion when all participants are well-fed, watered, bathed, clothed and clean-shaven. Because people don’t define or seek out quality piecemeal, let alone in a sequence.
As Macaulay once noted: “If men are to wait for liberty till they become good and wise in slavery, they may indeed wait forever.”
So the search for meaning in life does not wait on the satisfaction of basic needs. Any notion of quality of life that starts with a breakdown and classification of quality of life into more and less basic needs is starting in the wrong place. Any model that conceptualizes development as a progressive fulfillment of needs in a predictable sequence, and offers aid constrained by that sequence (or worse, penalizes attempts by beneficiaries to break out of the sequence), is headed for a very quick unraveling.
You need music and literature even when you are hungry and ill. There is a reason middle-class revolutionaries stir up popular passions among the hungry and dispossessed with theology, philosophical rhetoric and self-actualization narratives rather than narratives driven by the logic of access to basic resources.
Prisoners in California currently on a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement policies illustrate the poverty of such linear-sequential approaches to quality of life. I know nothing about the issue or the merits of various positions in the debate. What interests me is the undoubted symbolic significance of refusing satisfaction of a “more basic” need in order to protest non-satisfaction of a “less basic” one. Though I am not a Gandhi fan, he understood the power of such signalling. It is the most basic way to undermine the mental models of those who presume to dictate what “basics” ought to mean to you and whether you are competent to decide for yourself.
We vastly underestimate the degree to which humans will prioritize recognition and honor, even under the most extreme of conditions.
To provide the basics in order to allow the recipients of charity to make more choices as they see fit is to understand quality of life.
To provide the basics as the first step in a fully scripted development path, deviation from which invites withdrawal of the basics, is to be paternalistic about it. In a way, it is our modern version of the medieval idea that the needy should “know their place” and “not forget their station.”
I don’t know much about the history of civil rights in America, but I remember a lecture explaining the difference between the views of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois in precisely these terms.
It is the difference between quality of life as an affordance to be provisioned and quality of life as a freedom to be protected.
In America itself, the conception of quality of life itself started with a very shaky idea, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the contradiction between the second and third elements of that phrase that is the problem.
In order for a definition of quality of life to be meaningful, it needs to include a mechanism that allows it to be challenged and reconstructed by individuals. Happiness in America has become such a loaded signifier of entrenched scripts that it is less than useless to talk about it.
We should be thinking in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of fuck-you money. The last element is not a restatement of the idea of liberty. Liberty, understood in the traditional sense, is freedom from having others arbitrarily beat you up, lock you up, or kill you. Pursuit of fuck-you money is much more than that: the right to seek resources to script your own definition of quality.
So to repeat, the Maslow pyramid isn’t some sort of sequential script for life. Once truly acute stressors — we’re talking being chased by lions right now — are removed, the quality of life is a function of the whole pyramid, not just the level you happen to be navigating at that moment. Life isn’t a video game. You never really complete a level and move on. You don’t need to complete a level before being afforded a glimpse of the next one. You don’t need to tackle the levels in a set order.
Heck, you don’t need to go to Africa, India, American prisons or the home of a McDonald’s worker to appreciate how we pursue quality in life. Just look at your own. I, for instance, happen to be royally screwing up all sane notions of “retirement security” in order to pursue some sort of self-actualization through writing. At an age — 38 — when Fidelity is emailing me notices informing me that the investment choices in my retirement portfolio are “not appropriate for [my] age.”
It is easy to let yourself believe that the “middle class script” that we all like to criticize these days is merely some irrational pattern of individually chosen behavior that exists purely in culture and persists because we adopt it through mindless imitation. Gemeinschaft stupidity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Imitation is actually not a particularly important force. In fact, as an expression of free choice, it is entirely defensible as a way of picking a life-script.
The problem is that there is more than imitation at work here.
The script is hard-wired into the institutional landscape in ways that make it nearly impossible to break out of. From government programs that navigate by statistical models of quality of life to retirement planning infrastructure like the 401(k) program in the United States, to appropriate-behavior cues that are relentlessly reinforced in a million little ways, ranging from paternalistic emails from Fidelity to regulations that make it vastly simpler to seek paychecks than business income.
The justification for such mechanisms is usually conflict pre-emption. The systems are supposedly designed to ensure that your pursuit of your idea of a quality life does not get in the way of others pursuits.
That supposition does not hold up to scrutiny. But I won’t go there today.
When UN economists celebrate some book-keeping milestone towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, nobody really feels like joining them. Most have no idea what precisely is worth celebrating. When you get to more ambitious constructs, like the Happy Planet Index, you get greater absurdity, not greater insight.
Human life, modeled by economists, measured by bureaucrats, and celebrated by statisticians, seems to miss the point in some deep way. If we need those sorts of experts to tell us what constitutes a good life, and whether or we’ve achieved it, something is already very wrong.
The industrial approach to the quality of life is less about actually ensuring subjective quality of life via increasing freedom, and more about achieving stabilizing conditions via more complete provisioning. Conditions under which nobody is acutely distressed enough to disrupt a prevailing social order. Ensuring “happiness” or anything else is not the point. Reducing the urgency of the desire to define happiness for yourself is the point.
And so we are told that money does not buy happiness above $75,000 a year via a conjuring trick of a question that allows us to believe that our own definitions of happiness are in play. It is a lie in the same category as the ones parents tell their children when they cannot grant freedoms, or do not want to do so, you don’t really want to go to Disneyland, there’s nothing there really, our local theme park is much better.
Money does not buy happiness not because it cannot, but because the freedom to spend it intelligently is locked away in institutionally advantaged scripts that make irresistible claims on marginal discretionary dollars above that amount.
Which is why fuck you money is the right term for aspiring to more. To reach for $75,0001 while rejecting the approved list of ways to spend the extra $1 is to say fuck you to somebody else’s notion of a happiness-and-well-being script. Incentives to conform to said script be damned.
A deep truth about the human condition as captured in the Maslow hierarchy is that it is much easier for humans to help each other with acute needs at lower levels of the hierarchy. For all non-acute needs, and acute needs in the upper levels, the only defensible way to help others is to increase their freedom of action. Whether they choose to make themselves happy or miserable with that freedom is up to them.
So how did we get ourselves into a situation where institutions, politicians and economists are trying to tell us what quality of life ought to mean? How did we get to the point where arbitrary ideas like home ownership and a college education have been inserted into the script of oughts and shoulds?
In a way, the King of Bhutan is to blame for this state of affairs. When it was first introduced in 1972, the idea of Gross National Happiness seemed like a farcical idea from a pristine Buddhist Eden far from the concerns and constraints of modernity.
And it was farcical, but only visibly so because of the pre-industrial context. Industrial-era happiness scripts have been pulling a King-of-Bhutan on large populations since about 1900. The good king lent such macro-scale script engineering efforts a kind of hippie-Buddhist legitimacy that they were unable to achieve on their own.
Four decades later, with the rise and fall of positive psychology and the rise of Tony Hsieh style corporate cultural engineering, the Big Idea from Bhutan idea seems serious in a way it never did before.
Whether it is a UN committee or a Buddhist king doing the defining doesn’t really matter. To the extent that freedom is a central element of it, happiness defined is happiness denied.
In an episode of Yes, Minister titled “The Quality of Life” that aired in 1981, at the dawn of the Thatcher-Reagan era, Jim Hacker, the hapless minister decides to tilt at some Bhutanese windmills. Troubled by the ugly skylines of modernity, Hacker takes on the cause of a struggling urban farm at the heart of London, convinced that preserving a little patch of nature for urban kids would be a moral victory of sorts. He gets his victory, but it is a Pyrhhic one. He finds himself manipulated into supporting a property developer’s agenda elsewhere, in order to preserve the farm.
The fictional farce of Yes, Minister has turned into the genuine tragicomic farce that is the kerfuffle over Hayes Valley Farm in San Francisco.
I’ve been making a lot of fun in recent months of those who frame social evolution as a dialectical conflict between a human notion of the quality of life and an industrial notion of what it takes to sustain it.
I make no apologies for that. I find first-world artisans, Jeffersonian small businesses and other sorts of small-and-local ideologues funny. Funny because of the cluelessness of their underlying understanding of how the world does or could work.
But I do sympathize with the motives driving such behaviors. In a way, such behaviors constitute a rejection of industrial-age notions of quality of life developed by statisticians, bureaucrats and economists, and attempt to recover a more meaningful notion.
Right problem, wrong approach. Not aesthetically or ideologically wrong, but physics wrong. But still, it is better than the not-even-wrong approach of UN economists.
So it is a start. We have asked the right question. What does it mean to live a quality life today?
If the answer is sought via a survey, or measured via an economic indicator, it is wrong. If the answer is philosophically different for Africans without access to the “basics” and privileged San Franciscans fighting to preserve an urban farm, it is wrong.
An objective, defensible notion of quality of life must exhibit, at the philosophical level, a certain context-independent universality that reflects the shared human condition embedded within technological realities.
At the same time, at the subjective level, it must start with a freedom to define quality-of-life in more tangible, non-philosophical terms, for oneself.
Yes, paradoxical, I know, like those recursive acronyms computer programmers like.
The two must harmonize. The neo-Jeffersonians do have a word for it. They call it empowerment. The ability to decide what quality of life means to you, and pursue it.
Where they go wrong is in becoming attached to a fixed notion of what it means to be human. That it is an ideal created and promoted by a grassroots culture that romanticizes pre-industrial realities, rather than economists or Bhutanese royals, does not make it any less confining.
Sadly attachment to a pre-industrial notion of human means regress, not progress, which is perhaps worse than being told by the UN whether you are living a quality life.
In a way, it’s like the eighties and cyberpunk never happened.
We regressed from the adult appreciation and acceptance of technological realities that became widespread during that decade, to an unreconstructed revival of 60s and 70s idealism, repackaged in the language of social media and tyrannical #Occupy collectivism.
Rather than evolve to what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” we are regressing to the simplicity on “this side of complexity.”
Like Holmes, “I would not give a farthing for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
The journey requires us to make sense of the hump in the middle, technological modernity, and reconstruct our notions of quality of life, individually and collectively around it.
I recently encountered a manifesto that’s been doing the rounds, the accelerationist manifesto, that does slightly better than neo-Jeffersonian romantic dreaming. Unfortunately, while it valiantly attempts to scale the mountain of technological complexity and get to the other side, it ultimately fails because it too remains attached to a 1960s notion of what it means to be human (as best as I was able to understand that document).
It frames an impossible problem: pursuing an idealized human notion of quality of life while acknowledging technological realities.
If the humanists of both Jeffersonian and Accelerationist persuasions fail to reconstruct their identities around technological modernity, another promising group, the liberaltarian technologist crowd, gets a little bit farther. Not far enough, but well beyond humanists of any stripe.
The operating categories of this crowd — entrepreneurship, PUA, passive income, 4-Hour Body, online communities — suggests a mental model of quality of life that is not radically different from the one informing the Gallup well-being survey or the UN Millennium Development Goals. It’s still career, social, financial, physical, community.
The difference though, is that the base constructs have been loosened to the point that there can be significant individual autonomy in figuring out at least locally viable referents.
There is not much appreciative engagement of technological realities, but there is certainly highly competent instrumental engagement. Unlike the humanists, the liberaltarians can and do hack the planet to mine freedom for themselves.
But ultimately, a failure to appreciate one’s condition via abstractions becomes a failure to change it in more aggressive ways. This is a failure of imagination. The liberaltarians are not attached to romanticizied notions of human. But they are not able to offer alternative notions of being that rise above particulars like SEO consultant in Bali.
The consequences are immediate in their own lives. The big, dark secret of the lifestyle design movement is failed relationships (or failure to even form relationships). When you cannot construct shared explicit meanings, your social possibilities narrow to those who make similar choices and therefore share tacit meanings with you.
Nature abhors a conceptual vacuum. Where new appreciative constructs are lacking, old ones get resurrected in repackaged ways. Any day now, I expect some lifestyle designer in Bali to collaborate with a quantified-self bro-scientist in San Francisco and come up with a notion of minimum-viable lean life. And then the UN will turn that into a survey and include an entrepreneurship metric in its models.
Freedom is not the same as access to entrepreneurial modes of being. That is still provisioning with an element of gambling.
But at least we’ve made another small improvement. From not even wrong questions and answers to right question, wrong answer, we’ve arrived at right question, workable starter answer.
We are getting somewhere. Frustratingly slowly and painfully, but we’re moving.
It’s a start.
Note: this essay is a sort of companion piece of sorts to one that appeared in Aeon Magazine a couple of weeks ago, that you might also enjoy. That piece explores the specifics of how quality of life exists as a provisioned set of affordances rather than a set of freedoms.