Social Indicators Research

, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp 1–58 | Cite as

Happy life-expectancy

A comprehensive measure of quality-of-life in nations
  • Ruut Veenhoven


One of the aims of social indicator research is to develop a comprehensive measure of quality-of-life in nations that is analogous to GNP in economic indicator research. For that purpose, several multi dimensional indexes have been proposed. In addition to economic performance, these also acknowledge the nation's success in matters like schooling and social equality. The most current indicator of this type is the ‘Human Development Index’. In this approach QOL is measured by input; the degree to which society provides conditions deemed beneficial (‘presumed’ QOL). The basic problem is that one never knows to what extent the cherished provisions are really good for people.

An alternative is measuring QOL in nations by output, and consider how well people actually flourish in the country. This ‘apparent’ QOL can be measured by the degree to which citizens live long and happily. This conception is operationalized by combining registration based estimates of length-of-life, with survey data on subjective appreciation-of-life. Life-expectancy in years is multiplied by average happiness on a 0–1 scale. The product is named ‘Happy Life-Expectancy’ (HLE), and can be interpreted as the number of years the average citizen in a country lives happily at a certain time.

HLE was assessed in 48 nations in the early 1990's. It appears to be highest in North-West European nations (about 60) and lowest in Africa (below 35).

HLE scores are systematically higher in nations that are most affluent, free, educated, and tolerant. Together, these country-characteristics explain 70% of the statistical variance in HLE. Yet HLE is not significantly related to unemployment, state welfare and income equality, nor to religiousness and trust in institutions. HLE does not differ either with military dominance and population pressure.

The conclusion is that HLE qualifies as the envisioned comprehensive social indicator. It has both clear substantive meaning (happy life-years) and theoretical significance (ultimate output measure). HLE differentiates well. Its correlations fit most assumptions about required input, but also challenge some. The indicator is likely to have political appeal.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ruut Veenhoven
    • 1
  1. 1.Erasmus University Rotterdam and Utrecht UniversityRotterdamNetherlands

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