What nations come to mind? Perhaps the United States of America, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom, or China come to mind when thinking about the most advanced nations.
Our minds might leap to the financially rich and wealthy nations with high material standards of living, or perhaps it is the nations with the most developed technologies, or those that produce the most, or are even growing the fastest?
But can these same nations claim to provide a decent quality of life for all its citizens, is the way of life there even close to being sustainable, and are there excellent health and happiness outcomes? And if not, is there a viable economic and political strategy to change that?
A need for more than a mental shift
Among many people there is at least recognition that a blind focus on exclusively economic factors does not ensure wider societal progress. Many of us may have always known that deep within ourselves that the exclusive pursuit of economic success would never really serve the complete self. Yet the economic concepts of progress and success are so entrenched into our societies it has probably sometimes felt like there is nothing else to be done but acquiesce.
There may be some collective appreciation of a need to shift the notions of progress but there is still very little in the way of concrete enactment into policy. For it is not an easy task. It is not yet a well-trodden path.
Nevertheless, there are countries illuminating the path with active intentions to create policy based around alternative all-encompassing measures of progress. It could be said that these are the most advanced nations of the world.
My cycling journey around the world is about, among other things, exploring these advanced nations. I am in one of them now as I write (Costa Rica). I still have a long journey north to get to the next (Canada) and then there is my “final” destination (Bhutan). And for the purposes of loyalty let’s even say my journey begun in one of them (Scotland).
Costa Rica consistently tops the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which is an indicator of the efficiency to which happy citizens are created. This means that the citizens of Costa Rica live relatively long (79.1, rank 30th, HPI 2016) and happy (7.3 out of 10, rank 10th, HPI 2016) lives and use relatively few resources to obtain this (2.8 global hectares per capita, rank 75th, HPI 2016). Costa Rica, although not perfect, is an inspiring example of sustainable well-being. Life is to an extent one of voluntary simplicity – Pura Vida. They have no military and instead invested in education and health. The government actively promotes a sustainable economic model.
Canada has a higher well-being score (7.4 out of 10, rank 9th, HPI 2016) and longer life expectancy (81.7 years, rank 11th, HPI 2016) than Costa Rica yet is a nation that has an extremely high resource uses (8.2 global hectares per capita, rank 136th, HPI 2016), which means that Canada ranks 85th on the overall Happy Planet Index.Nevertheless, Canada is inspiring because it has established thus far the most viable measure of national well-being that has direct links to policy. The development of what was to become The Canadian Index of Well-Being (CIW) began in 2000 and is a citizen-driven imitative and guided by Canadian core values and is non-partisan. The overall index is computed from a dashboard of indicators across 8 interconnected domains: Community Vitality, Democratic Engagement, Education, Environment, Healthy Populations, Leisure and Culture, Living Standards, and Time Use. The Index has been designed in a way such that there are tangible links to policy. This means that there is greater clarity in how an outcome can be improved and how that will generate overall increases in well-being. The Canadian Index of Well-Being can also be broken down to the regional and community level to help regional and city planners feed into greater well-being.Canadian Index of Well-Being aside, Canada has also been collecting national statistics on self-report measures of well-being for the longest (since 1985).
Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayas bordered by India and China. Many might not have never heard of it. However, it is the only country in the world that’s principal policy objective is to make decisions that increase the happiness and well-being of its citizens. It is in Bhutan where the term Gross National Happiness came from. It is far from being an economic powerhouse as the leaders of Bhutan try to make decisions that preserves culture, community, and the environment, among other things, rather than opt blindly for the option that produces the greatest economic return. Although Bhutan is very far from being the happiest place on earth, as some misleadingly believe, and in some ways decisions are draconically top down, it is a nation that is inspiring due to it being a very early first mover away from the standard objective of economic growth.
Scotland is a place I consider to be home, and it is where I have perhaps been happiest in my life. These personal biases aside Scotland has developed an indicator of national progress called Scotland Performs. Scotland Performs takes the form of a dashboard of 55 different indicators. There is no overarching single score due to ambiguity on how such indicators can be meaningfully aggregated. There is in my opinion too much emphasis on economic performance in Scotland Performs but nevertheless, the progressiveness of Scotland’s approach lies in the fact that an Act was brought in in 2015 known as the Community Empowerment Act. The Act ensures that Scottish Ministers must set national outcomes for Scotland within the Scotland Performs framework. These outcomes must be taken into consideration by public authorities, people and organisations and progress must regularly be reported upon and reviewed. This is a progressive step but unfortunately there has been very little engagement with the public in the development of Scotland Performs. Thus very few people in Scotland know about and some might say it perhaps lacks some legitimacy.
Much more to do
Of course none of these nations are perfect – no nation is. There are many things that could be said of each about issues they struggle upon, for example, perhaps it is issues of freedom, migration, the environment, governance, inequality, human rights, and so forth. It would be easy to undermine and discredit each one – and perhaps some might do that to hold on to old notions of progress. But eventually the paths of these nations will seem well trodden for they take paths that all nations will one day go. They will need to…
***This post was part of a wider journey for happiness in which I cycled to Bhutan. There is more about that wider journey here.