“We cannot solve our biggest problems if we do not come together.
It is not only about institutions or processes.
It is in the first instance about our mindsets.”
– UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres1
Happiness, Wellbeing and Peace
What do we all have in common? We want to be well—that is to be happy, healthy and to live in peace. In fact, the search for happiness seems to be core part of human’s nature, with Aristotle describing happiness as the end goal of every person.2
The pursuit of happiness even has its place in the United States Declaration of Independence dating from 1776. More recently, in the resolution adopted by UN General Assembly in 2011,3 all countries recognized happiness as a fundamental human goal, calling for “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes the happiness and well-being of all peoples.” Consequently, 20th March has been declared as the International Day of Happiness.
Despite the rising interest in making happiness a personal and policy goal, it seems that today we are at a crossroads. The numbers of crises, from climate to COVID, and symptoms such as heatwaves, floods, burn-out and depression have increased dramatically. These are wake up calls. Do we really want to continue with business as usual? Or do we want to pause for a moment, reflect, and envision how we might change course? Shifting our mindsets, I argue, plays a key role in creating a better and happier future.
What are Mindsets?
Mindsets frame our thinking, which in turn determine our feelings, decisions and actions. Therefore, mindsets shape our behaviors, experiences and life journeys. At the individual level, a mindset “reflects personally distinguishable attitudes, beliefs and values, which influence one’s ability to learn and lead, and to achieve and contribute”.4 At the collective and global level, mindsets affect how we interact amongst each other, how we run our societies and economies, how we deal with nature, environment and the climate. Largely unconsciously, mindsets influence all our personal and collective actions, policies and goals.
I have found, through my research, professional practice and personal experience, that mindsets play an important role in human development at the individual, collective, and global level. It is estimated that some 95% of our mind is subconscious,5 therefore it is a game-changer to become aware of our mindsets in order to be able to make the changes we want.
“If we want to have a better and happier future,
now is the time to examine the mindset of our present generation.”
– H.H. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama6
The Need for a Mindset Shift
Based on my qualitative research conducted over the last four years with dozens of thought leaders and development practitioners around the world, it became evident that shifting mindsets is the key catalyst to achieve sustainable health, peace, wellbeing and happiness.7 We have a choice. We can remain stuck in our ways, or change our mindset thereby redirecting our life. Collectively this means that through changing our mindsets, thinking and actions, we can change the course of humanity.
In systems thinking and leadership, shifting mindsets is considered as the highest leverage point to change a system, even higher than policies and goals. For instance, Donella Meadows argued that “because mindsets and paradigms guide behaviors, changing them can have a profound impact… People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transform systems.”8
Therefore, for us to overcome the multiple crises we are currently experiencing at the global level, and to achieve sustainability and regeneration, we need a mindset shift:
from blaming others to taking self-responsibility
from imposing quick fixes to co-creating solutions
from quantitative to qualitative growth
from GDP obsession to wellbeing of people and planet
from materialism to holism
What is Wellbeing?
In simple terms, wellbeing is defined as “the state of feeling healthy and happy.”9 Wellbeing means ‘being well’ and healthy in multiple dimensions. These include at least the following dimensions: physical, intellectual, environmental, emotional, financial, social, spiritual, and occupational (as illustrated below). Going beyond ourselves, wellbeing applies to our families and communities, the environment, climate and planet.
What is a Wellbeing Mindset?
A wellbeing mindset is a frame of thinking that fosters wellbeing in a holistic manner. This means “being well” in all the aforementioned inner and outer dimensions. Following my earlier article ‘The Sustainable Development Goals Begin with Mindset’ in 2020, I define a wellbeing mindset as “the whole of attitudes, beliefs, and values of a person or group of people that foster wellbeing. Wellbeing relates to a person, group of people, the whole of humanity, other sentient beings such as animals, and planet Earth.”11 The wellbeing mindset’s spheres of influence are illustrated in the following figure.
Expanding our awareness and opening our mind and heart towards a wellbeing mindset is possible at different levels, be it individual, collective or global. For example, after a life-threatening motorbike accident in 1997, I began a quest for meaning, transformed my mindset and fundamentally changed my life. I went beyond my earlier pursuit of money, materialistic wealth, and career success towards following my heart. I have changed my career and joined social causes with NGOs and the United Nations. Now I appreciate the interdependence of life, universal spiritual wisdom of traditions around the world, and bridging science and spirituality.
A national example of a wellbeing mindset can be found in the Kingdom of Bhutan. The Himalayan country notably declared Gross National Happiness (GNH) to be more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).12 Bhutan has been heralded as a leading climate champion, absorbing more carbon emissions with its forests than it emits.13 During COVID, Bhutan’s holistic approach of putting people first has been a global success story with almost universal vaccination cover and close to zero deaths.14
While Bhutan has its own share of challenges, GNH fosters wellbeing of all sentient beings and planet, and thus is an outstanding source of inspiration for the mindset shift required to create a more harmonious economy and way of living. Promisingly, more countries are orienting their policies towards wellbeing, such as Canada, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, and Scotland.15
What can we do?
All individuals and organizations play a role in creating wellbeing, and a better and happier life. Consciously or unconsciously, we all together co-create our collective journey. We can rethink, create, and implement a growth paradigm that goes beyond the economy, and that includes inner, collective, and planetary wellbeing. We can acknowledge the limits of quantitative growth on a limited planet and instead shift to qualitative growth.
Based on both the research I have undertaken and my own personal experience, I know that increased mindfulness is an excellent starting point. As Thich Nhat Hanh highlighted, “mindfulness is the most reliable source of peace and joy…and our continuation as a civilization and a planet depend on it.”16 Key suggestions helpful in cultivating a wellbeing mindset are summarized in the following acronym MANTRA:
Mindfulness: Take on a mindfulness practice. Awareness: Expand your awareness with inner work & raise awareness about key issues. Non-judging: Be compassionate and non-judging of yourself and others. Think Positive: Be, think and act positively, as energy follows attention. Real you: Be the real you by showing your true colors. Aliveness: Enjoy and celebrate being alive by honoring life in all forms.
These practical tips are a beginning for growing individual and collective wellbeing, as well as a way of life harmonious with our Mother Earth.