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Infrastructure plan is a chance to use wellbeing to guide public policy

A sign is seen as Senate Republican unveil their infrastructure plan during a press conference
Greg Nash

President Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan has prompted a national discussion on what infrastructure really is. But perhaps the more important question is: What should it do?

Around the world, countries are taking the position that not only their infrastructure programs but all aspects of their public policy should serve the aspiration of human and planetary wellbeing.

In Wales, for example, that means asking how a road will benefit future generations, instead of  simply building a big road to alleviate traffic woes. It means developing an evidence-based plan for reducing traffic congestion in a sustainable way, through more railway stations, more bus routes, and more bicycle lanes. That’s because, under the 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, government agencies in Wales must consider the long-term impacts of their decisions.

In the United States, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are foundational to our democracy, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. Our country is rooted in the desire for both individual and societal wellbeing.

Think of wellbeing as a state in which you and your community are thriving across all aspects of life and can create a meaningful future. You are living your healthiest possible life — mentally, physically and emotionally. Your basic needs, like food, housing, education and employment are all being met, as well as needs like safety, connection and life satisfaction — all within the context of a healthy community and a healthy planet.

How can we, as a society, achieve this vision?

For several years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been looking at other countries that put wellbeing as their North Star, to learn how their approaches might inform policy and practice here. We found that 20 countries across nearly every continent are taking a wellbeing approach — reorienting policies, programs and budgets around the wellbeing of their people. Although they are at different stages of using wellbeing as an indicator for progress, they’ve all made progress from which we can learn. 

Bhutan’s approach to wellbeing is based on the idea that people deserve to be happy. The country’s legal code of 1729 flatly states that “If [a government] cannot create happiness for the people, there is no reason for the government to exist.” Its Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy, introduced in the 1970s, draws inspiration from the Buddhist “middle path” of balance between the tangible and intangible aspects of wellbeing. The government conducts a national assessment of wellbeing defined by nine GNH “domains,” including education, living standards, community vitality, and time use. This information guides policy, planning and resource allocation. 

Results include innovative natural resources and tourism policies and Bhutan’s status as the world’s first carbon-negative country — within a framework of achieving sustainable and equitable development while preserving cultural traditions. This tiny, under-resourced nation has had only one COVID-19 death since the pandemic struck.

New Zealand’s wellbeing budget, introduced in 2019, focuses on the long-term impact of policies on the quality of people’s lives. That first budget directed all new spending to achieving five wellbeing goals: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, supporting indigenous peoples, transitioning to a low-carbon-emission economy and thriving in a digital age. 

Although the government’s 2020 budget pivoted to address the COVID-19 crisis, it also included additional resources for Maori and Pacific communities, funding for equity-focused research, increased benefits for people who had lost income and housing support.

These examples from around the world suggest how we in the United States can begin asking questions that will move our country closer to a state of wellbeing. How can we develop infrastructure plans that advance wellbeing goals of sustainability, safety and connectedness? Or build wellbeing into public budgets to ensure that our children flourish, that our elderly can live comfortably and independently and that everyone has opportunities to thrive?

Roads and airports — along with environmental regulations, education programs and all the other things that governments design, build, support, or maintain — are important because of what they do for people. By reorienting them to improve wellbeing, we can achieve an American Dream where everyone — regardless of who they are or where they live—has the true opportunity to be well.

Karabi Acharya leads the Global Ideas for U.S. Solutions team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health.

Tags Economic ideologies happiness Joe Biden Well-being

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