Let’s be real: New Zealand is making the rest of the world look like a bunch of chumps.

First, in the wake of a horrific mass shooting that left 51 innocent civilians dead, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern behaved with compassion, grace and leadership that showed most of her male global counterparts exactly what leadership should look like in the wake of such grotesque violence.

Not only did she properly and respectfully grieve with her people, but she wasted no time with only offering “thoughts and prayers.” She quickly mobilized her country into real political action that effectively responded to domestic terrorism.

Cityscape image of Auckland skyline, New Zealand during sunset.

The sun sets in Auckland, New Zealand, a country that set an example for the rest of the world about how to respond to a horrific mass shooting and is about to release its “Well-Being Budget.”

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Only five days after the attack, while funerals were still taking place, Ardern announced sweeping legislation to ban all military-style semi-automatic guns and assault rifles. Similar to a program implemented by Australia’s 1996 “National Firearms Buyback Program,” the prime minister announced that the government would develop a gun buyback effort to remove existing firearms from private circulation.

On April 10, 2019, less than one month after the terror attack, the New Zealand Parliament voted 119-1 to pass the ban.

That’s how it’s supposed to be done, folks.

This month, New Zealand plans to release its first “Well-Being Budget.” This budget takes a critical step forward in implementing the county’s “Living Standards Framework” with 12 “Domains of Current Well-Being”:

  • Subjective Well-Being,
  • Civic engagement and governance,
  • Cultural identity,
  • Health,
  • Housing,
  • Income and consumption,
  • Knowledge and skills,
  • Safety and security,
  • Social connections.
  • Environment,
  • Time use,
  • Jobs and earnings.

The platform and goals demonstrate real commitment to creating a society that sincerely considers the betterment of the whole, not just the few. It’s also a bold intergenerational approach that recognizes we have a noble obligation to future generations to not irreparably harm their world in pursuit of economic gain.

Happy Planet Index

The idea is not entirely new. For years, the New Economics Foundation has been calculating and releasing a Happy Planet Index based on how effectively citizens of different nations achieve “long, happy sustainable lives.”

The concept is wonderful, because it considers well-being, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and ecological footprint in determining its findings.

It looks at well-being based on “How satisfied the residents of each country say they feel with life overall, on a scale from zero to ten, based on data collected as part of the Gallup World Poll.” It takes its life expectancy data from the United Nations. It considers social inequality. Then it measures all of this against the average ecological footprint of residents.

What is repeatedly found is that most Western countries do not score well. They report: “Wealthy Western countries, often seen as the standard of success, do not rank highly on the Happy Planet Index. Instead, several countries in Latin America and the Asia Pacific region lead the way by achieving high life expectancy and wellbeing with much smaller Ecological Footprints.”

‘Gross National Happiness’

The Happy Planet Index and New Zealand’s recent efforts all follow the creation of the “Gross National Happiness” concept that originated in Bhutan.

The fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, declared in 1972 that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” The idea recognized that economic growth should not be the only indicator of a country’s progress and well-being.

Bhutan uses nine domains to construct its Gross National Happiness Index:

  1. Psychological wellbeing
  2. Health
  3. Education
  4. Time use
  5. Cultural diversity and resilience
  6. Good governance
  7. Community vitality
  8. Ecological diversity and resilience
  9. Living standards

We see important similarities between Bhutan’s factors and the factors now being considered in New Zealand.

There’s something both important and profound about an approach to government that gives significant consideration to the happiness and well-being of its citizens. While no one should negate the necessity of a robust economy, we are well overdue to evolve how we define and measure wealth.

Hawaiians used the word “waiwai” for wealth; the word “wai” meaning fresh water. Traditionally, Hawaiians understood that first and foremost a healthy environment, including readily accessible fresh water, was key to wealth and well-being.

That has not changed, yet for some reason our understanding of wealth has. Our measurement of wealth is dominated by money and commodities. Yet, do these elements alone really comprise what it means to live a wealthy life?

According to much of the world, apparently not. Perhaps it’s time for Hawaii to follow suit.

There will surely be snarkiness and skepticism, but is there really a price tag we can place on our beaches? Or the fringing reef that has protected these islands for centuries from tsunami and storm surge? Or the health of our children? The privilege of enjoying our mountain views?

Shouldn’t those be exactly the sorts of things we prioritize? Isn’t aloha more than a bumper sticker, but a way of life here?

Aren’t the factors considered New Zealand, Bhutan, by the Happy Planet Index exactly the subjects conversations we should be having in Hawaii?

Maybe it’s time we stop figuring out how to fit the people into government and start fitting government to the people. Policy should not be defining our values, rather our policies should reflect the inherent values we find most important.

It seems we are long overdue for a conversation in government about what those values are, how we protect them, and how we sustain them for future generations.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.