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Measuring Improvement in Human Well-being Globally

By Erich Striessnig (Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, OeAW, University of Vienna))

Two human hands holding big tree and city over blurred green forest background

Source: Boonyachoat

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, United Nations, 2016) are thus far the most ambitious attempt to improve human well-being globally and ensure peace and prosperity, while simultaneously protecting the natural environment and the biodiversity within it. Besides questions raised by contradictions between some of the 17 different SDGs and their 169 implicit targets – e.g. achieving the economic targets might jeopardize the ecological ones (Nilsson, Griggs, and Visbeck 2016) – the question remains: How do you measure the progress of all these goals when the ‘Final list of proposed Sustainable Development Goal indicators’ contains 230 items?

A team of researchers at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/OeAW, University of Vienna) recently presented a new indicator taking on this challenge (Lutz et al., 2021). YoGL, or Years of Good Life, marks the attempt to summarise progress towards the SDGs in a single composite indicator that can be interpreted as the number of years a person can expect to live above certain minimum levels in objective and subjective well-being.

YoGL is based on the simple fact that to enjoy any quality of life, one needs to be alive. Thus, YoGL is founded in the idea that well-being is an increasing function of the average length of life. As even under the most unequal distribution of income and wealth, an individual of extreme wealth does not outlive the rest of society indefinitely, gains in well-being – as expressed in YoGL terms – have to be achieved by a general improvement in living conditions.

The mere survival of the maximum number of people would not usually qualify as a sufficient criterion for successful welfare state policies though. Under the conditions of increasing longevity, many older people struggle to find a sense of meaning and purpose in rapidly changing societies which confront the individual with expectations of lifelong learning and constant self-enhancement. While categories such as ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are difficult to measure objectively, YoGL accounts for the fact that being alive is not sufficient by stipulating further conditions that have to be met to enjoy a high quality of life: A good year of life requires the individual to have simultaneously lived it out of absolute poverty, free from cognitive and physical limitations, and generally satisfied with his/her life as measured by his/her subjective standard.


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The new possibilities of looking at improvements in quality of life offered by YoGL allow for new insights into the development process, as well as for more comprehensive assessments of its sustainability in the spirit of the SDGs.

YoGL reveals substantial country differences that go beyond differences observed in life expectancy, as not all additional life years are necessarily good years. In addition, for many countries, YoGL shows much wider development gaps as suggested by recent improvements in longevity. A 20-year old woman in Sweden, for example, can expect to live another 58 YoGL, while in Yemen that figure amounts to only 10 years, not even accounting for the devastating impact of violent conflict in recent years. Finally, YoGL points at important gender imbalances. While women outlive men in virtually every society around the globe, this is not the case in YoGL terms. The majority of developing countries for which data are available show the opposite picture: Women are living less YoGL than men. This suggests a strong contradiction between objectively-assessed and subjectively-perceived living conditions.

Further research is needed to understand what drives differences in YoGL around the world. In a forthcoming article, we have meanwhile reconstructed historic time series of YoGL for 140 countries (Striessnig, Reiter, and Dimitrova Forthcoming). Based on these reconstructions, as a next step, we are planning to estimate a “well-being production function” that uses YoGL as its dependent variable. Results will allow for inferences on the feedback loops that exist between human well-being and worsening environmental conditions that can be the by-product of unsustainable development. The hope is that future assessments of policy interventions will be made, not based on the narrow criterion of economic profitability, but on the question of whether people can expect to live more YoGL as a consequence of concrete policies.



Lutz, W., Striessnig, E., Dimitrova, A., Ghislandi, S., Lijadi, A., Reiter, C., Spitzer, S. & Yildiz, D. (2021). Years of Good Life Is a Well-Being Indicator Designed to Serve Research on Sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(12).

Nilsson, M., Griggs, D. & Visbeck, M. (2016). Policy: Map the Interactions between Sustainable Development Goals. Nature, 534(7607): 320–22.

Striessnig, E., Reiter, C. & Dimitrova, A. (Forthcoming). Global Improvements in Years of Good Life since 1950. Vienna Yearbook of Population Research.

United Nations. (2016). Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). United Nations Sustainable Development (blog).