We are at a pivotal moment as a nation and as a global community to redefine what matters to us, how we define progress and purpose, and how that then drives our decision-making, systems and structures. As we emerge from the pandemic together, it will take discipline not to simply go back to “business as usual,” falling back into old habits that prioritize economic growth above all else.
The deep inequities and shocking system failures laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic have made it clear that we need a seismic shift: As a nation we must set holistic and shared human and planetary well-being as our definition of progress, placing that goal at the heart of decision-making. Well-being in this context means that every person has what they need to thrive in every aspect of life and to create meaningful futures. It includes people’s physical, mental and social health, as well as basic needs like food, housing, education, employment and income. It includes social and emotional needs, like sense of purpose, safety, belonging and social connection, and life satisfaction. And it is tightly linked with the well-being of our communities, our environment and our planet.
Leaders in social justice, public health, environmental sustainability, economic equity and many other fields from around the globe have been exploring well-being approaches to their work — from what we define as “progress” and how we measure it, to how we prioritize resources, to who drives policy choices. (New Zealand’s adoption of a well-being budget, resulting investments in mental health and early childhood education, and aggressive and successful COVID-19 strategy provide an inspiring example.) From well-being work around the globe, we are learning what works and where there are opportunities and gaps in the United States that need our collective creativity and commitment.
What would it mean if we all committed to putting human and planetary well-being at the heart of decision-making, as our very definition of progress? Imagine how that would inspire new actions, expectations, benchmarks and narratives (the commonly held stories that help us make sense of the world) that propel social justice priorities.
Metropolitan Group hosted a panel of creative thinkers — joined by about 75 people from across issues, sectors and countries in our Zoom room — for a lively discussion of what it would mean to take a well-being approach. (Click here if you’d like to watch a recording of the conversation.)
Mindy Fullilove, professor of urban policy and health at The New School, and author of Main Street, sparked a discussion on the deprioritization and depletion of our “commons,” resources and services accessible to all members of a society. From the absence of stockpiles of protective gear and ventilators at the beginning of the pandemic, to crumbling parks and water pipes, to lack of figurative stockpiles of collective caring and support, Mindy illuminated the connection between loss of the commons, concentrations of wealth and deepening inequities. Mindy also emphasized the need to recognize and address collective trauma, and called for a pause for collective healing. “The process of getting to wellness will make us well,” she said.
Alonzo Plough, chief science officer and VP of Research, Evaluation and Learning at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has been exploring how well-being approaches can influence measures, policies and narratives. He painted a picture of what broadening the way we define both health (shifting from death and disease to thriving and flourishing) and progress would mean for addressing health equity and building a culture of health. He described how being able to see when people’s well-being is faltering and act on it early could help us head off crises like the opioid epidemic, and shared insights on movement toward incorporating well-being indicators in U.S. data and policy.
Julie Rusk, founder of Civic Wellbeing Partners, a startup to advance well-being leadership and practices based on her work as the architect of the City of Santa Monica’s award-winning well-being approach, emphasized that racial equity must be at the forefront of any well-being approach. Decision-making, she said, must value and tap into the assets, wisdom and needs of communities, including community networks and young people. Inviting thinking about how to describe and build commitment to the holistic notion of well-being, Julie pointed out that we have a language problem. “Well-being” is sometimes distilled or conflated to mean mental health, positive psychology and happiness. “Well-being is not lattes and yoga mats,” she said. “It’s about justice.”
A piece of this conversation that has especially intrigued us is the role of narrative change in fueling a shift to a well-being approach. Jennifer addressed this during the panel, and it was a theme that ran throughout the discussion. Like many other countries around the world, our dominant narrative about progress and power in the United States is firmly rooted in wealth, consumption and competition. The strength of our economy is viewed as the strength of our country. This has fostered a “zero-sum,” individualistic way of thinking, with a belief that wealth and resources are something to be hoarded (not shared). If others are thriving, the narrative goes, it must be coming at some cost to me. There is a tremendous opportunity to collectively counter that narrative — guided by grassroots movements that already hold well-being narratives, knowledge, wisdom and capital — and advance a new narrative centered on well-being.
As new, well-being centered narratives take hold, the ground becomes more fertile for nearly every social movement. Individuals and communities begin to envision, expect and demand an alternate future marked by hope, connection, collective healing, opportunity and equity. Metropolitan Group is researching this idea in the U.S. and in other countries and will release our findings later this year.
As you reflect on this conversation, what new questions or opportunities does a well-being approach raise for your own work? As start points, consider the changes you might make to reorient your organization’s compass to pursue equitable human and planetary well-being through your mission, performance indicators and strategies. And be mindful of how the stories you share and the actions you take can either reinforce the narrative that progress is all about economic growth and individualism, or expand the narrative to focus on benefits to the commons and that define well-being as the North Star.
Together, we can and must engage diverse sectors, coalitions, movements, thinkers and activists in questioning and redefining the constructs of purpose and progress and open possibility for a far more just, equitable and sustainable world.
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For additional background on well-being, order your free copy of Well-Being: Expanding the Definition of Progress at rwjf.org/wellbeingbook. This book, and the convening that powered it, inspired MG’s journey into well-being approaches.