Advancing Well-Being in an Inequitable World

Insights From Thought Leaders

A mother picks vegetables with a baby secured to her back.

Photo credit: FIFTY, Creative Commons

Efforts around the globe offer lessons for practitioners, policymakers, and researchers as well as anyone interested in understanding and ensuring well-being.

Countries and cities around the world are measuring their residents’ well-being—the comprehensive view of how individuals and communities experience and evaluate their lives—to assess human progress and challenges with more clarity than economic measures alone can provide. For example, economic reports may show unprecedented prosperity, but well-being data reveal that prosperity is not broadly shared and that some groups are living with extreme levels of isolation, despair, and trauma—early warning signs of premature death.

To learn from experiences around the world, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) convened an international group of thought leaders at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in September 2018. The select group included 32 practitioners, academics, and leaders from complementary fields.

An RWJF learning report based on the provocative face-to-face dialogue offers insights into how well-being can be advanced through forward-looking policies, programs, and resource allocations.

Suggested Pathways

  • Shift the consciousness of influencers. People raised to see progress in solely economic terms need to experience well-being for themselves to embrace it as a societal goal.

  • Advance a compelling well-being narrative. Social and cultural stories—especially those that establish well-being as mattering as much as, or more than, wealth and consumption—have the power to create different expectations, demands, and actions.

  • Shift power and practice radical inclusion. Well-being must be relevant to all people and must address fundamental issues of inequity and exclusion.

  • Collaborate across fields, sectors, and movements. A well-being approach is by nature a cross-sector one because it includes so many aspects of human life and the conditions in which people live. It encourages collaboration and advances multiple goals.

  • Transform and align governments. As governments create and evaluate policies based on their impact on well-being indicators, they find new opportunities for collaboration across agencies. This improves efficiency as well as outcomes.

Global leaders also offered three broad considerations for advancing well-being:

  • Start now, where you can. A shift to well-being can begin anywhere, is rarely linear, and varies greatly in different places and contexts.
  • Focus on the future. This work demands long-term vision and intergenerational leadership.
  • Use the power of measurement. The most informative measures—those that shift narratives and propel action—are clear and relevant to everyday people, not boiled down to one oversimplified “score” that lacks nuance.

These and other insights and recommendations will be explored more extensively in a special Oxford University Press volume anticipated in early 2020.


Receive a free copy of our book on advancing well-being, based on insights from a convening of global practitioners, researchers, and innovators. Learn from places and leaders around the world that are redefining how to track and pursue well-being, to inform and surface new opportunities for action within the United States. Sign up below and we'll notify you when this next volume in our Oxford University Press Culture of Health Series becomes available (anticipated in early 2020).

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From the blog

Global Approaches to Well-Being: What We Are Learning

RWJF is observing, testing ideas, and exploring how to integrate insights from around the world into how we build and measure a Culture of Health across the U.S.

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