Did civilisation add to the quality of human life?

Civilisation and development has improved the quality of human life in human societies, but not in a linear way.

Factory chimneys pouring out polluted smoke in Sheffield
Factory chimneys pouring out polluted smoke in Sheffield, 1925. Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Civilisation: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2013.

Civilisation is commonly seen to involve a better quality of life, but there are also qualms about the benefits of civilisation. One is that it typically involves the dominance of one particular culture over others, which may not be the most liveable one. A related reservation is that civilisation may go against human nature. In this essay I will take stock of the available evidence for these views. A preliminary step is to specify the concepts.


The word ‘civilisation’ is used to mean different things and is applied both at the macro-level of societies and the micro-level of individuals. When applied at the macro-level, the word often denotes societal development and in that context is associated with advanced technology, fine- grained division of labour, hierarchical organisation and globalisation. In this evolutionary perspective ‘great civilisations’ are seen as societies that were ahead of their time and have pushed humankind to a higher level. At the macro-level the term is also used in a narrower sense, suggesting development towards a more ‘decent’ society and in that context is associated with taboos on cannibalism, respect for human rights, peacefulness and the flourishing of arts and sciences. When applied at the micro-level of individuals, the term ‘civilisation’ denotes decent behaviour and is associated with control of emotions, observance of codes of conduct, intellectual development and refined taste.

The phenomena denoted by these three meanings tend to go together, but do not necessarily do so. Advanced societies are not always the most decent ones and individuals living in a civilised society do not always behave decently. In this essay, I will consider all three meanings of the word ‘civilisation’.

Quality of Life

The term ‘quality of life’ applies only to the micro-level of individuals, since societies have no ‘life’ as such. One cannot meaningfully speak about the quality of life of a society, but only of the quality of human life in a society. In that case the term is typically used for aggregates, such as the quality of life of most of the inhabitants. In this application the term quality of life is used in two ways.

Assumed Quality of Life

The term ‘quality of life’ is commonly used to denote living conditions deemed good for people, like material affluence, clean air and social support. This is commonly measured using points systems to rate the presence of such desirables, which are then combined in an index. Many such indices exist and these provide different mixes of living conditions in different aggregates, for example the Index of Social Progress (Estes, 1984) that measures the quality of living conditions in nations and the Dutch Life Situation Index (LSI) that sums up the life chances of individuals (Boelhouwer, 2010). One of the problems with this view of quality of life is that it involves a priori assumptions about good living conditions, such as the principle that education is good and that more of it is better than less. I call this ‘assumed quality of life’.

Apparent Quality of Life

By contrast, I distinguish ‘apparent quality of life’, which is how well people actually flourish. How well people flourish manifests in their health and happiness, which can be quantified in Happy Life Years (Veenhoven, 2005).

For this analysis of the relation between civilisation and quality of life, we had better not use notions of assumed quality of life because of the conceptual overlap with notions of civilisation. This is the case with education, which figures in both notions of civilisation and quality of life. Therefore, I focus on ‘apparent quality of life’ and inspect whether people live longer and more happily in ‘civilised’ social conditions than under barbarism.

Apparent Quality of Life in Civilised Society

Two strands of research provide information on this issue: one is historical anthropology, which provides estimates of the health and longevity of our ancestors in different phases of societal development. The other is comprised of research into social indicators that assesses health and happiness in contemporary societies.

Big History: healthy life years over societal evolution

Estimates of how long and healthily humans have lived in the past are summarised in Figure 1. The square dotted line on the left side of the picture is based on analysis of human remains. It shows that in the long phase of hunter-gatherer societies, humans lived short but fairly healthy lives. The agrarian revolution did not result in greater longevity, but did reduce average health in several ways, such as more epidemics, manslaughter and chronic malnutrition (Mariansky & Turner, 1992, Lensky et al, 1995). The first ‘great civilisations’ emerged in the agrarian phase of societal development, in which quality of life was lower than in the earlier hunter-gatherer phase. So civilisation has not always resulted in a better life.

Figure 1: Healthy life years over human history

Yet after the Industrial Revolution a steady rise in longevity set in, which continues today. It is also clear that much of the gained life years are spent in good health. This upward trend is indicated with the solid rising line on the right in Figure 1. The round dotted continuation of that line denotes the expected development of healthy life years.

Happiness in Modern Society

Though we now live longer and healthier lives than ever before in human history, it could still be that we enjoy life less. If so, increased longevity may be a mixed blessing. Several critics of modernisation see evidence of such a negative trend in rising rates of depression and declining trust in institutions. An example is Robert Lane in his book The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000).

Happiness in the Most ‘Decent’ Societies

Comparisons across nations also reveal strong correlations between average happiness and several indicators of societal decency that are not necessarily part of economic development. These indicators are respect for human rights, gender equality, absence of corruption and trust in fellow citizens. Research findings on that matter are summarised in the World Database of Happiness (Veenhoven, 2013) in the collection of correlational findings entitled ‘Happiness and the Condition of the Nation’.

Yet comparisons across contemporary nations show that people live the happiest lives in the most modern ones. This is easily visible on the world map of happiness in Figure 2 and also appears in strong correlations of average happiness with various aspects of modernity such as income per head, level of education, industrialisation, urbanisation, globalisation and size of the service sector (Veenhoven & Berg, 2013). Likewise, comparisons over time within modern nations reveal an upward trend (Veenhoven & Vergunst, 2014). So the solid rising line in Figure 1 applies also to happiness.

Figure 2: Average happiness in contemporary nations

Yet there is no clear correlation between average happiness and homicide rates in nations (Veenhoven, 2012), nor with the scope of the welfare state, which is sometimes considered as a hallmark of civilisation (Veenhoven, 2000).

The Apparent Quality of Life of Civilised People

Analysis of differences in happiness of individuals has also shown correlations with indicators of decency. For instance, happy people cheat less on taxes and engage more in voluntary work. Happy people are also more tolerant and less politically extreme. Yet happy people do not stand out as support of high-brow culture. An overview of research findings is presented in Table 1.

Table 1


Over time, civilisation has improved the quality of human life in human societies, but not in a linear way, since it reduced quality of life during the time of the great ancient civilisations. Among modern societies, the most civilised ones provide their citizens with the best quality of life; within these societies the most civilised people live the happiest lives.


Ruut Veenhoven