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Wellbeing: the new means of implementation for the 2030 Agenda

Why Positive Psychology might have the answers to a ‘wellbeing’ led development model.

The transformative Agenda 2030 calls on us to ‘Invest in People and the Planet’. The 17 comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals have outlined for the global community a framework to address the world’s most pressing challenges. However, despite the value of systemic measures, our interventions eventually face the brick hard wall of mind-sets. Legislative and policy changes can have exponential impact only when accompanied by simultaneous long lasting positive change in the community’s social norms, mind-sets and perceptions.

In an oxymoron of its own, the challenging task of initiating and sustaining such behavioural change requires a transformed understanding of the SDGs and a mind-set shift itself. Amidst the rapidly developing multi-stakeholder interventions to address the Agenda 2030, we need to remember to break down the SDGs and understand them as human interactions.

‘Investing in People and the Planet’ starts with investing in ourselves.

Attention is the most essential human resource, and we are increasingly wasting this energy required to engage with the world. Mindfulness and the value we give to the wellbeing of our minds might be the key to the Agenda 2030’s success. Because alongside what we give attention to, how we give attention matters as well.

Our world is witnessing a rise of polarisation and divide- on ethnic, political, social and economic grounds. However, it is noteworthy that at the same time examples of kindness and commitment to social good have persisted and even contributed to our collective resistance to such polarisation.

For example, late in 2015, while much of the world was treating refugees with scepticism and hostility, thousands of Canadian citizens were ‘adopting’ Syrian refugees-donating a year of their time and money to help guide them into new lives. Grassroots interventions showing us that fundamentally kindness still exists as a character trait of our human race are still widely abound. “The ‘other’ is not a statistic or a number”, and many citizens of the world are working hard to remind our conscience of this.

Measuring growth in terms of wellbeing

In this call to foster mindfulness and wellbeing among our citizens, there lies a larger argument herein for governments, i.e. how do countries measure growth. Only when governments measure growth differently, do their policies begin to cater to society’s needs and wellbeing.

It is argued that the science of wellbeing is already empirically mature enough to complement economic assessments of national progress (Adler & Seligman, 2016). By simultaneously measuring wellbeing and economic growth, governments can assess comprehensive national progress beyond material living standards and thus be better informed to enact comprehensive societal prosperity (Diener et al., 2009).

Our collective journey to achieve Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals is missing a focus on fostering wellbeing as a means of implementation for more peaceful and productive communities.

Using GDP as the sole measure of national welfare has typically raised two concerns. Firstly, that not all market activities can be monetized (e.g. psychological and environmental externalities). Secondly, despite the recognized value of economic measures of progress for governments, businesses, communities and individuals, they provide a limited window into individuals’ quality of life and of societal prosperity (Diener et al., 2009; Stiglitz, 2010).

Therefore, if GDP is complemented with measures that capture changes in wellbeing, decision makers will have a more comprehensive, multi-dimensional and accurate portrayal of social progress (Adler & Seligman, 2016).

International institutions and governments have begun to address wellbeing’s role in informing better policy decisions. A normative push came in 2011 when a United Nations resolution encouraged Member States “to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing in development with a view to guiding their public policies” (UN General Assembly Resolution A/65/L.86). Furthermore, the OECD’s Better Life Index to advocate for wellbeing in its 34 member states is a noteworthy example.

Transforming education to teach the tools of wellbeing

More importantly, effective succession to data on wellbeing will be specific public policies to advance social wellbeing.

SDG4: Education is undoubtedly the backbone of the Agenda2030; yet what remains to be ascertained is what kind of education we want and what kind of communities it will go onto foster.

Schooling of children has been traditionally about accomplishment, success, literacy, knowledge about different subjects, and discipline. Yet, in the backdrop of the volatile politics and economics across the world, it is critical that positive education is mainstreamed now and with significant urgency.

Positive education is defined as education for both traditional skills and for happiness. There is growing evidence from controlled studies that skills which increase resilience, positive emotion, engagement and meaning can be taught to school children (M.E.P. Seligman et al., 2009). Positive education can be embedded into most academic courses, on the sports field, and in music.

Along with better learning and well-being outcomes, improved skills and strengths, positive emotions have been empirically proven to reduce at least some racial biases (Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005), indicating its value to build inclusive societies.

Positive education has the potential to form the basis of a ‘new prosperity’, nurturing a politics that values both wealth and well-being by starting early in the formative years of schooling.

Our existence is undoubtedly deeply tied to that of others. And if we are collectively reflective of our internal development and conscious of fostering compassion within us, this existence will be a much more peaceful one.


Adler, A. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Using wellbeing for public policy: Theory, measurement, and recommendations. International Journal of Wellbeing, 6(1), 1-35.

Diener, E., Lucas, R., Schimmack, U., & Helliwell, J. (2009). Well-Being for public policy. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, K.J. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2005) ‘We all look the same to me’: positive emotions

eliminate the own-race bias in face recognition, Psychological Science, 16, 875–881.

M.E.P Seligman et al. (2009) Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions, Oxford Review of Education, 35 (3), 293-311.

Stiglitz, J. E., Sen, A., & Fitousi, J. (2010). Mismeasuring our lives: Why GDP doesn’t add up. New York, NY: New Press.


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