Creating a wellbeing economy (1) – Learning from the happiest nations in the world

Insight, Wellbeing Strategy

The recent publication of the influential Global Happiness Report puts the conversation about wellbeing and wellbeing economy, at a national (and even global) level centre stage, irrespective of any question about the validity of the method of measurement. Seeing countries around the world ranked in terms of the Happiness of their population inevitably prompts questions about how highly ranked countries have achieved this. 

More than simply national pride or a sense of competitiveness is involved in asking such a question. 

Even aside from the impact of Covid-19, more and more Government’s are realising the cost of Mental Health challenges to the global economy – in 2010 poor mental health was estimated to cost the world economy approximately $2·5 trillion per year in reduced productivity, a figure predicted to rise to $6 trillion by 2030. 

And more and more are realising the much broader potential of wellbeing to drive society, culture and the economy at the heart of an ‘Economy of Well-Being’ defined as “the capacity to create a virtuous circle in which citizens’ well-being drives economic prosperity, stability and resilience.” Angela Gurria, OECD Secretary General, 2019 

So what can we learn from some of the countries at the top of the Global Happiness Index that might be seen as creating a wellbeing economy?

1. Be more Nordic! Build trust, security and community. 

The first answer to that question is simply “be more Nordic!”.  Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden make up 5 of the top 8 countries in the global ranking (with Switzerland, The Netherlands and Luxembourg buddying up alongside them) so clearly something is happening in that part of the world that other nations can look to for inspiration.

Identifying precisely what this is from a policy perspective is challenging. Life satisfaction and happiness appears to derive from a mix of elements that interrelate, sustain and support each other in a self reinforcing fashion. There is therefore no single “policy ingredient” so much as a general societal goal to build trust, security and community:

“The Nordic countries are characterised by a virtuous cycle in which various key institutional and cultural indicators of good society feed into each other including well-functioning democracy, generous and effective social welfare benefits, low levels of crime and corruption, and satisfied citizens who feel free and trust each other and governmental institutions… There is rather a more general recipe for creating highly satisfied citizens: Ensure that state institutions are of high quality, non-corrupt, able to deliver what they promise, and generous in taking care of citizens in various adversities” World Happiness Report, 2020

2. Put wellbeing at the heart of the national sense of purpose

The other common theme to emerge from considering the happiest countries of the world is about purpose. Increasingly countries who are leading the way on happiness and wellbeing are doing so because they have made that their objective and goal. Representing a trend increasingly referred to as “beyond GDP” , more and more Government’s are exploring ways in which to put wellbeing at the heart of their system of objective and KPI setting. “It is the adoption of [subjective] well-being measures [like satisfaction with life] by states, policymakers, and other members of the international community that are today paving the way towards the concept now known as the Wellbeing Economy.” (Nordic Council of Ministers quoted in the World Happiness Report 2020).

Leading the way in wellbeing economy

A few countries are leading the way here. 

Bhutan pioneered the approach with their rejection of GDP in favour of Gross National Happiness as their key measure of “growth”. 

New Zealand has also recently adopted a Happiness Index as a replacement for GDP and a wellbeing budget as a means of trialling new ways of prioritising and assessing Government spending:  

“The budget requires all new spending to go toward five specific well-being goals: bolstering mental health, reducing child poverty, supporting indigenous peoples, moving to a low-carbon-emission economy, and flourishing in a digital age. To measure progress toward these goals, New Zealand will use 61 indicators tracking everything from loneliness to trust in government institutions, alongside more traditional issues like water quality.”

In the UK, three important documents were published in 2021: the autumn budget, an official “Green Book” supplement on using a well-being approach in cost-benefit assessment, and a discussion paper providing further details on the latter topic. The House of Lords select committee on Covid-19 stated that: “The overall conclusion of the Committee was that our current understanding of national resilience and preparedness is not fit-for-purpose and that the role of the state needs focus on the resilience of our national wellbeing for the long term and to enable, support and coordinate action towards it.” 

There appears to be a similar enthusiasm for this direction of travel in the devolved nations that make up the UK. Scotland’s National Performance Framework has wellbeing at its heart and Wales has enshrined wellbeing into policy making with its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. 

And these examples are clearly even being taken note of by nations with advanced levels of wellbeing already. Iceland enshrined 39 wellbeing indicators into policy making in 2019 and Happiness leader Finland is also close to defining targets and legislation to ensure policy is designed and delivered with wellbeing and happiness in mind. 

So what now? Are you trying to create a happier organisation?

Are you trying to develop creative solutions to wellbeing and strengthening Mental Fitness in your organisation? If you’d like help to take this further, we’d love to talk and we’d love to hear your ideas about building better relationships as an individual and an organisation. 

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by | 20 May 2022

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