Can we redefine “progress” to center well-being?

At the Foundation, I’m part of a team looking around the world for solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges. Last year, we partnered with RAND Corporation and Metropolitan Group to explore how communities are working to shift the stories of progress toward a wellness approach. In this case, “narratives” refers to the collection of stories and experiences that make up our shared ideas about the world and why things are the way they are. (See the report for a full explanation.) Our hypothesis is that as long as the dominant narrative is “progress is economic growth,” it will be difficult to take a different approach.

Through our work, we have learned how other countries challenge the status quo by taking a well-being approach – that is, making decisions based on their impact on human and planetary well-being and on economic growth, through policy, budget, and practice change, and by recalibrating stories about what matters most. From New Zealand to the United Kingdom to Bhutan, countries define what wellbeing looks like, measure how people are doing and prioritize wellbeing in budgets. They show that it is possible to broaden the narratives of progress to focus on well-being – including having a sustainable, equitable economy – along with a more robust and holistic set of other factors.

How do American communities take lessons from abroad?

Last year, RAND Corporation and Metropolitan Group tried to understand how leaders in the United States might put some of these global lessons into practice. This is what they learned.

A food justice coalition expands the meaning of ‘economy’

HEAL Food Alliance, a national coalition of more than 2 million food justice practitioners, experts and advocates, wanted to reclaim the original meaning of the word ‘economy’, which comes from the Greek word meaning ‘housekeeping’.

They wanted to demonstrate that economic success should be measured by how resilient an economy is and how far it serves the well-being of its people. That’s why the team created a four-part video series that reshapes local economies in relation to HEAL’s key areas of work – health, environment, agriculture and labor – and raises the voices of their members, most of whom are excluded from mainstream stories. .

The City of Jackson, Mississippi, Considers Broadband a Welfare Problem

In 2017, Jackson’s city government developed a “dignity economy” model focused on well-being. The goal: to improve the quality of life of residents and ultimately lay the foundation for new generations and businesses to thrive.

More recently, the city has seen improving broadband access as a core strategy in its approach to wellbeing. Using a well-being narrative, the team envisioned expanding broadband access as an investment with many economic and societal benefits to well-being, from empowering residents to participate fully in democracy to providing better access to health care. The challenge now is to evaluate and discuss broadband outcomes across multiple dimensions of wellbeing (e.g. how it benefits social connections and mental health), not just as an economic return on investment.

Cities Across the Country Apply Data to Power a Well-Being Story

The National League of Cities convened leaders from across the country to examine how global wellness story research resonates with efforts in the United States. Many cities start welfare work by creating a stock index to guide policy decisions. For example, the City of Charlotte’s Built City Equity Atlas helps the city determine policies to prioritize investments in under-resourced neighborhoods and identify policies that can reduce unintended consequences, such as gentrification and involuntary displacement.

For Charlotte and other cities, a stock index can be a precursor to building a well-being story, as it defines and tracks all elements of well-being, helping to defend a broader city purpose. City leaders in the United States also said they need evidence that a wellness approach will be effective and need help to counter current definitions of progress based on economic growth. “We have an employment agency,” said one participant, “but not a welfare agency,” pointing out the current disconnections and the kind of shifts needed to fully align with a welfare approach. In a separate but related project, the National League of Cities has also released a wellness message guide to support the efforts of cities.

In the future, we have the opportunity to build a story of progress that focuses on wellbeing, in a way that is authentic, based on justice and effective in changing mindsets and actions. With this research and the work of our partners in mind, how can you promote wellness stories in your work?

For more stories and insights, including the work of One Fair Wage and Peace First, the latest research from RAND Corporation and Metropolitan Group, read What if progress meant well-being for all? You can also explore the Foundation’s ongoing wellness learning journey.

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