Human Development Index: Quantifying Quality of Life

How Do You Quantify “Quality of Life”?

How are you doing, really? Beyond the knee-jerk reaction of “I’m fine, thanks,” if you pause and give this question some true consideration, what part of your life does your mind dart to? Is it school? Your job? Your health? Take a moment and think about it: how are you doing? Zoom out your answer to your neighborhood, your city, your country, and finally to the entire world. As humans, we instinctively want to know how the people around us are doing. But when you ask your friends, classmates, or even yourself, how can we actually tell how anyone we know, let alone individuals in other countries we don’t know, is really doing?

The Answer

In a global comparison, the largest variations in wellbeing are dependent on the country in which you live. Every country provides its citizens with opportunities, or a lack thereof. The highest potential of wellbeing that the average person can achieve is determined by how good or how bad the quality of these opportunities is.

The main issue is identifying the opportunities that are measurable, globally applicable, and the most effective indicators of wellbeing. Let’s find out what those key variables are!

Definition: Human Development Index (HDI)

The Human Development Index, or HDI, is a composite measurement indicating the average wellbeing of all people in a given country.

How It Works

In 1990, Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, first introduced the Human Development Index to the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP. He identified the three opportunities, or as he coined them “dimensions,” that quantify the quality of life:

One: The opportunity for “A long and healthy life” - measured by life expectancy at birth. Life expectancy is calculated by using the mortality rates for a specific group of people and finding the average age of death. The group is defined by a common identity, such as country or other geographic location, as well as sex, race, and other demographic factors. 

Two: The opportunity for “Knowledge” - measured by expected years of schooling for children, and mean years of schooling of adults. 

Three: The opportunity for “A decent standard of living” - measured by Gross National Income per capita. Gross National Income, or GNI, is the total amount of money made inside a country, plus any income generated by citizens living abroad and any foreign investment and aid. Per capita translates to “per person.” Therefore, a country’s GNI is divided by its total population. However, this measurement doesn't account for price differences among nations. For example, it may cost much more to buy a bottle of water in some countries than in others. To adjust and equalize the different price levels, or purchasing power, between countries, we use an economic theory called Purchasing Power Parity, or PPP. By expressing the GNI per capita in the PPP international dollar, denoted as PPP $, we avoid these purchasing power differences and get a more uniform result.

Each of the three dimensions is computed into a final number, or index, that represents its specific dimension as a whole. These indices are the Life Expectancy Index, the Education Index, and the GNI index. 

The indices are combined to calculate the total HDI, which is expressed as a value between 0 to 1. Depending on their HDI, countries can be ranked into four categories: Very High for an HDI of 0.800 and greater, High for an HDI of 0.700 to 0.799, Medium for an HDI of 0.550 to 0.699, or Low for an HDI of 0.549 and below. 

Using It

The UNDP explicitly states that “The HDI was created to emphasize that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone.” 

Prior to the HDI, the international standard measurement of a country’s development was the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP per capita, an exclusively economic index. The HDI’s broader scope allows a more comprehensive assessment of human development. Analyzing the relationship between HDI and GDP reveals how financial and social progress correlate and suggests what factors ensure success in both areas, or contrarily causes one to flourish and the other to fail. In both international relations and in national discourse, the HDI identifies the places and dimensions that should demand the most attention.

The HDI can be used as evidence to shield or validate claims about the state of social justice or injustice. By adding quantitative data to arguments that are typically grounded in qualitative reasoning, the HDI delivers necessary evidence to reinforce otherwise subjective matters.

Think Further

  1. Why were these three specific dimensions selected to be indicators of human development? If you were in Haq’s position, what dimensions would have you selected, and why?
  2. What other potential conclusions can you draw from analyzing any given country’s HDI compared to its GDP?
  3. Why do you think the international community historically has valued the GDP over HDI? In what ways is the HDI more important than the GDP, and vice versa?


Get updated about new videos!



Learn More

  1. Roser, Max. “Human Development Index (HDI)” Our World in Data, 25 July 2014,
  2. United Nations Development Programme. “Technical Notes: Human Development Indices and Indicators: 2018 Statistical Update”, Human Development Reports, 2018,
  3. United Nations Development Programme. “Global Human Development Indicators”, Human Development Reports, 2019,