Do More Than Hope for a Happy New Year

by Beth Allgood, President, OneNature 

As we wrap up perhaps the most heartbreaking year in memory, many virtual watercooler conversations revolve around our hope that 2021 will be a happier, healthier one for all.  For that to happen, we need more than hope.  We need a vision of a brighter future, a roadmap to get us there, and some measurable steps we can take toward a better tomorrow.  

In the twilight of 2020, happiness and well-being for all seem a distant dream. Research indicates many Americans are in despair, with more of us feeling more isolated, lonely, and worried about our children’s future than during the past 50 years.  Analysis of Twitter posts suggests people are more unhappy than at any time since the platform was launched.  Social injustice and unrest, climate change, COVID-19, economic insecurity, generate torrents of tweets and social media posts which, evidence indicates, make people even more sad and angry.  

As Abraham Lincoln said of his own tumultuous time, “the occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion  . . . we must think anew, and act anew.”  At the dawn of a new year, we need to rethink systems and metrics that diminish our wellbeing, including the very one by which we measure our “success.” Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the proxy indicator of a nation’s progress since 1944, despite the caution by the economist who created it that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

Myopically focused on short-term economic output, resource consumption and manufacturing, GDP leaves the natural world, human health, and other indicators of societal progress off the balance sheet.  As entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken puts it: “We have an economy where we steal from the future, sell it in the present and call it GDP.” The future has arrived and with it a climate crisis, global pandemic, economic fragility, and political chaos, each serving to further reinforce unsustainable patterns of inequity, injustice, and environmental damage.

Yet, some countries have already begun measuring and prioritizing the happiness and well-being of their citizens. Bhutan led the way in the 1970s with Gross National Happiness indicators. Last year, New Zealand unveiled its first wellbeing budget, and Iceland recently adopted a wellbeing policy framework.  Some US cities and states are also moving “beyond GDP” to include economic, social, and environmental wellbeing indicators.  As we look for ways to “build back better,” it is time for the United States to leap to the forefront of the wellbeing movement.      

At OneNature, we believe conservation of our nation’s stunning natural heritage, wildlife, and habitat areas is also fundamental to human wellbeing. Whether we are watching great whales from a boat off our coasts, hiking national parks, or enjoying the agricultural bounty made possible by tiny pollinators, Americans’ happiness and wellbeing are not separate from wildlife and the natural world we share; they are inextricably linked. We are not alone in making these connections. Across our planet — from Baja, Mexico to sub-Saharan Africa, from the Arctic to the Caribbean — local communities are developing models that reconcile human wellbeing and habitat protection. These models and communities demand our attention and deserve our support.

A Plan for Action

There are three steps we can take right now to put ourselves and our country on a path to wellbeing and help others find their way: 

  1. Resolve to be happier in 2021, and more focused on wellbeing. Yes, you. Start with some positive New Year’s resolutions — to pause daily to meditate or reflect, to enjoy time in nature with dear friends and family. Consider what you can do to increase happiness in your own family, among your colleagues at work, and in your community. As we begin to measure our personal success by how happy and connected we are, we can also begin to consider how well our society protects and promotes our own and others’ wellbeing, now and into the future. 
  2. Engage the policy process and the public support to prioritize wellbeing. There are many steps: those involved in policymaking at the local, state, national, and international levels can take to accelerate this process. Requiring topline assessments of the “non-economic” impacts of policy proposals on individual and national happiness and wellbeing at the very beginning would be a good place to start.  As we recover our individual and national footing following the COVID-19 crisis, Americans seek more happiness, connection, and meaning. Let’s engage them.
  3. Accelerate research on the value of the natural world and healthy wildlife to human wellbeing. As society begins to prioritize happiness and long-term well-being, rather than just next quarter’s bottom line, we will need to shed the idea that the natural world, wildlife, and habitats must “pay for themselves.”  Access to nature, wild animals, and a healthy environment are at the center of many of people’s most important values including physical and mental health, educational success, culture, clean air, potable water, and climate resilience.  Yet, while society is beginning to recognize the value of “nature” as a whole, our appreciation for the specific value of wildlife is less developed. The evidence suggests that healthy native wildlife is integral to the thriving ecosystems on which we all depend. We need to build on that evidence with additional research to better understand the connection between healthy wildlife habitats and human wellbeing. Armed with this information, policymakers can work to advance both, before we lose the species and wild spaces we love–and need.  

Let’s create a vision for a different future and take action now so that we don’t repeat the challenges of 2020.  Next December, when we are standing around the watercooler, we can talk about how much happier we were in 2021, and how the world will be even better in 2022. 

That’s OneNature’s vision for the future, and we invite you to join us on the journey ahead.

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