"How's life?"

Gold Medal winner Alex Michalos' research helps answer age-old question

Date published: 2008-02-25 12:48:09 PM

Alex Michalos has spent the past 30 years looking for the good life.

His research on how to measure and improve a person's quality of life, and his quiet resolve to apply academic theory to real world problems has earned him the reputation of "citizen-scholar," the respect of academics and political leaders around the globe, and now, SSHRC's highest honour—the Gold Medal for Achievement in Research.

When the Pentagon faced escalating rates of depression and stress among its soldiers, Michalos was brought in to help measure the quality of life of US military personnel and their families. When apartheid ended in South Africa, the new government turned to Michalos for help in measuring and improving its citizens' quality of life. From Hong Kong to Spain, from Australia to British Columbia, Michalos is admired for his compassion, unassuming leadership, and determination to share his knowledge for the greater good.

 "I have always been interested in making the world a better place," he says. "I am proud of my academic achievements, but I feel my research is not worth much if I can't put it into action and improve people's lives."

Michalos has perhaps most fully realized this goal in the small northern community of Prince George, BC. It was here Michalos helped build the Prince George Community Planning Council, an advocacy group that deals with community well-being, health, homelessness and other important local issues. He also helped build the University of Northern British Columbia, where he now teaches as professor emeritus of political science.

"I am more proud of my work with Community Partners Addressing Homelessness in Prince George than anything else," says Michalos. "It has probably done more good than all my scholarly work put together."

Yet, despite his humility, Michalos can look back on a long list of academic achievements which have influenced leaders and thinkers well beyond his own backyard.

In the field of quality of life research, Michalos' greatest contribution has been to remember to ask people how they feel about their lives. By combining subjective feelings with objective numbers and measurement tools, Michalos devised a reliable tool for understanding how people perceive their own quality of life. This in turn makes it possible to provide community-based solutions to the unique problems of different communities around the world.

In 1974, Michalos founded Social Indicators Research, the first academic journal devoted to quality of life measurement. He later founded the Journal of Business Ethics and co-founded three other academic journals, most recently, with Deborah Poff, The Journal of Academic Ethics. Michalos has published 22 books and more than 85 refereed articles. His work has been translated into seven different languages, and he has helped create and nurture many "quality of life" organizations, ranging from the International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies to the Canadian Rural and Remote Health Association.

While his work has influenced governments and inspired fellow scholars, Michalos' motivation for academic excellence seems to lie in his selfless drive to help improve the lives of other people. "My research, measuring the 'good life,' is really connected to my moral theory of creating the greatest good for the greatest number," he says. "It is not always easy for academics to apply their research to better the human condition…but that is precisely what my research is about."

Alec Michalos is the 2004 winner of the SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research.