Chapel Hill: Opinion

Terri Buckner: The ambiguous and elusive ‘quality of life’

What does quality of life mean to you?

It’s a frequently used term; but according to a 2013 study by a couple of European psychologists, quality of life “turn(s) out to be an ambiguous and elusive concept.”

Published definitions (non-medical) range from the mundane dictionary definition of “the standard of health, comfort, and happiness experienced by an individual or group” to the more targeted “a highly subjective measure of happiness that is an important component of many financial decisions” (Investopedia).

And then there are personal definitions such as the one published in this newspaper last month “vibrant student life, arts and music scene, and abundance of unique, local businesses.”

An informal survey distributed via social media turned up some interesting local definitions.

Fred Black wrote that “A community has a positive and affirming quality of life when it offers options and choices that truly enhance how the members of the community are able to live together.”

For Nancy Oates, it’s all about diversity. An anonymous writer stated that “Quality of life for me is inextricably tied to how difficult it is to live and get day-to-day things done.”

Someone recently back from traveling in Central America added a long list including freedom from fear of crime, reliable electricity, honest not corrupt public officials, and clean water.

Yet another anonymous poster added some humor with ‘challenge/lively debate/contrasting opinion, a wood-burning fireplace, freedom to speak my mind, a dog, and a good game of chess.’

And finally another CHN columnist wrote:

• A compact place that is not overly dense or out-of-scale for people

• a place with plenty of access to nature

• a place that is not overly congested with traffic

• a place where getting around by automobile is not the only option

• a place with diversity of people, places to go, and things to do and see

• a place that preserves its history but that has new and compatible development too

• a place with a variety of workplaces, dining establishments, and cultural/learning opportunities

• a place where you can get to know people, and cross paths with them often

What is abundantly clear is that quality of life can mean virtually anything to anyone. It’s a concept that crosses geographic borders and socioeconomic factors. For some it’s the basic physiological needs on Maslow’s hierarchy and for others, it’s the higher-order needs or both.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has developed the Better Life Index based on 11 essential dimensions: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. Although the index was developed for use at the country level, those dimensions strike me as relevant to our local community. The problem, as one of the anonymous posters to the local survey pointed out, is that many of our often-discussed community wants are mutually exclusive. And then there’s the problem of keeping “needs” separated from “wants.”

So what does this all mean and why does it matter?

To me, it highlights the need to be careful with our words. When we use ambiguous terms like “quality of life” or “charming” or “facts-based,” it’s always wise to consider how those terms are received. Communications is, after all, a two-way process. If the listener doesn’t decode the message in the same way that the speaker encoded it, we have what the Captain in “Cool Hand Luke” called “a failure to communicate.”