Seeding New Narratives About What Matters Most

Global insights about well-being spark U.S. innovation

By Jennifer Messenger and Fernanda Salazar Mejía

To read more about our recent exploration of global well-being narratives and U.S. projects and ideas for how to advance them, please download the full report and stories from the field. Done in partnership with the RAND Corporation and funding from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The economy holds a special place of honor in many countries. It’s nurtured, prioritized, even viewed as a living being whose growth is natural and good for everyone. The idea that our progress as a nation is defined by the strength of our economic growth(at the exclusion of other critical factors) is one of the most persistent global narratives — and, because of its influences on behaviors and decisions, one of the most damaging when it comes to creating a more just and sustainable world.

What would it take to shift that narrative? What if our shared story were that progress means well-being for all, a world where we expect and create conditions for all people to thrive and to create the futures they desire, equitably? Centering well-being in a frame that appeals to justice and equity — including physical, mental and environmental health, social and cultural belonging, sense of purpose, and other dimensions — would mean that progress and the economy serve human beings, communities and our environment in a sustainable balance, and not the other way around.

For clues on how a narrative shift to equitable well-being might happen, we looked around the world at the growing number of countries that are starting to take a well-being approach, meaning their policy and budget decisions are guided by a set of well-being indicators and outcomes. We narrowed in on three in particular:

  • New Zealand has made headlines for its well-being budget, massive investments in mental health and early education, and just 27 total COVID deaths (0.5 per 100,000 residents).
  • England did pioneering work on well-being measurement more than a decade ago, and there are concerted efforts by several nonprofits to call for a “well-being economy.”
  • Mexico developed a subjective well-being indicator in 2012 (by asking people how they are doing) to help inform decision-making. The current National Development Plan includes a “well-being economy” and “well-being minimum wage.”

Although none of these countries — or others — have toppled the dominant “progress = economic growth” refrain, we tracked the growth of two emerging narratives:

  • The “economy plus” narrative: This nascent narrative — something like “the economy should deliver good, meaningful lives for everyone” — is being intentionally advanced by a handful of nonprofits and think tanks, and echoed among progressive media, isolated sectors within government, niche economists, social justice advocates, and academia. It makes the case that the economy is something that was intentionally created and that it can be rebuilt in a more just and sustainable way. Well-being, then, would be the outcome of a refined economic system. We wonder whether this inadvertently reinforces an economics-centered narrative and prevents transformative change.
  • The pure well-being narrative: This narrative — along the lines of “well-being must be at the core of all decisions and actions,” is enduring at the grassroots level, often tied to specific issues, such as violence, migration, racial justice, gender equity, environmental sustainability and justice. Themes of human dignity, decolonization, and deconstruction of patriarchy are strong. This narrative is deeply embedded in the words, practices and cultures of grassroots movements, Indigenous communities, social justice advocates, and niche media and social media voices, yet remains relatively invisible in media, political discourse and policy deliberations.

There has not been funding or support to connect these efforts or test which narratives most effectively shift mindsets and actions.

Download this report from our website.

We brought these and other narrative insights to a group of six organizations working on social change in the United States. They designed short-term projects to experiment with how well-being narratives might provide new opportunities for storytelling, message framing and issue strategy.

Thanks to our collaborators, whose projects are detailed in the full report.

Eric Dawson, Peace First

Navina Khanna, HEAL Food Alliance

Saru Jayaraman, One Fair Wage

Marlin King, City of Jacksonville, Mississippi

Deb Nelson, Just Economy Institute

Sue Polis, National League of Cities

Their creative approaches — from framing the demand for living wages for restaurant workers through a well-being lens, to applying well-being concepts to the launch of a new organization shifting the flow of capital — demonstrated the potential for a well-being narrative. They found the concept of a broader, shared definition of progress — centered in dignity, equity, liberation and collective well-being — was relevant, resonant and helpful.

A well-being narrative shows early potential both to advance specific social issues and to create a broader demand for actions that go beyond economic growth to holistic well-being. But scaling up is a bit tricky because no proven, equity-centered, well-being narrative exists.

In the U.S. and globally, groups are starting to experiment with new narratives, but the movement is not networked, leading to competing narratives and incremental rather than transformative change. Most of these formal narrative efforts do not adequately address power and equity, they are too centered on measurements, and they are often based exclusively on economic analysis. And while some grassroots organizations are advancing well-being narratives centered in racial and gender equity, there has not been funding or support to connect these efforts or test which narratives most effectively shift mindsets and actions. We believe that as these voices are amplified, we will begin to see the true impact of a new narrative about progress centered on well-being.

There is opportunity to clarify and refine the narrative — including use and meaning of the term “well-being” — to provide turn-key narrative tools that others can use in their work, and to explore the impact of well-being narratives on policy and other actions.

Meanwhile, we’re interested in lifting up the stories and storytellers who are already defining progress through a well-being frame. If your organization or others are defining progress broadly — and calling for actions that advance well-being — please find and tag us using @metgroup, #wellbeing and #powerofvoice.

If you’d like to discuss this research, see how a well-being narrative might boost your work, or get involved with next steps, please reach out!

In the U.S.: Jennifer Messenger, Metropolitan Group, jmessenger@metgroup.com

In Latin America: Fernanda Salazar Mejía, Impacto Social Metropolitan Group, fsalazar@metgroupmexico.com

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MG/ISMG crafts strategic and creative services to amplify the power of voice of change agents in building a just and sustainable world.