This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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Wow, so the world turned.
Who thought there’d ever be a time when you couldn’t have a drink with a friend or give your grandma a hug?
There are upsides though.
In this topsy-turvy world of lockdown, we’re all suddenly appreciating things and people we’d taken for granted.
We’re discovering that menial and healthcare jobs – the ones we have tended to outsource to people who are less educated and often migrants – are actually performed by “key workers”. We’re now calling them “heroes”.
And we’re getting to look behind the curtain of the modern world, to see what life would be like if it were slower, kinder, more local, conversational and grateful.
Who hasn’t talked more than they used to with a neighbour recently? Or caught up with an old friend on Zoom?
Who hasn’t wondered, “What can I do to help?”
Who hasn’t stopped to say “Thank you” out loud to a nurse or a doctor or a person selling them food?
The success of our consumer-driven system is based not only on creation, but also destruction. Modern life is built on unprecedented material abundance, and the power of the state and the individual.
All that success stomped on family and community. And it led us far from much of what made human life magical.
Coronavirus, for all the lives it’s upended and dreams it’s broken, makes us pause and contemplate the real value of life.
In our modern lives, some of us can afford to just make arrangements for the things we need, like care for our children and our elderly parents. In many OECD countries, we benefit from the safety nets of social welfare, so we no longer need to rely on or help each other.
That’s more than a shame. Because one of the most counterintuitive discoveries of recent years – made by a trio of researchers at UCLA, Yale and Harvard – is that if you want to be happier, you should spend time on others rather than yourself. Being kind in this way has magical, hidden powers.
Read the OECD policy brief COVID-19: Protecting people and societies
When you’re kind to someone, your system releases oxytocin. And their system, too. And anyone who sees or hears about this act of kindness. And since oxytocin – also known as the “love drug” and the “cuddle hormone” – makes people feel all warm and good inside, any act of kindness delivers a whole world of goodness.
And so thank you coronavirus, because the other thing that’s gone viral in lockdown is kindness. If only you could bottle and brand it, and make a profit from it.
Because in a modern world still obsessed with GDP rather than well-being measures, that’s what a thing needs to be taken seriously. To borrow from Joseph Stiglitz, what we measure affects what we do.
So how can we turn away from the monolith of GDP towards well-being? Because well-being is nuanced and multifaceted, most think the answer lies in a dashboard. But the problem with most dashboards is that they’re too complex to make sense in a soundbite.
We need a dashboard that gives an overall score. And not just a score out of 10, but a score that can rise, just like GDP. A score that says simply how we’re doing: better than last year, better per capita, and better than you.
It shouldn’t only be measured at the national level (inequality!) or even at the city level, but at the community and neighbourhood level. Schools would be measured on this. Estate agents could include well-being measures in their prospectuses: like nearness to a park, and some sort of “community count” (e.g. What proportion of people are part of the street’s Whatsapp group? How engaged are they?). Councillors would count it on their record.
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I think this new world is on its way, and this “great reset” will speed it along.
(It’s worth noting that it took more than 20 years for national income accounts to take off. They were first published in 1933 in the United States. It wasn’t till the late 1950s that they became the de facto way to measure national income. The first modern national well-being measures were enshrined in Bhutan’s constitution in 2008 and were conducted in France in 2009.)
The great news is you can see the shoots of this growing already.
The B Corp movement shows how to apply this to business. Their cri de coeur is that instead of seeking to be “best in the world”, firms should seek to be “best for the world’. They don’t forget about shareholders and profit. Sustainability is based on turning a profit. But a firm should also measure its impact on planet and people, including its workers, its customers and its suppliers.
After almost a decade of well-being measurement in advanced economies, we’ve seen the first example of how it can be done at a national level. New Zealand’s government has designed its latest budget based on well-being priorities.
Now is the time for a strong, sustainable and inclusive recovery, by Dimitri Zenghelis and Nicholas Stern, Grantham Research Institute
You can even see it in schools. When I went to school in the 1980s, you got awarded for coming top in maths. This January, my six-year-old son came home from school with a “Gold Award” for being kind to a girl in his class (a group of girls wouldn’t let her sit at their table at lunch. Without a word, apparently, he’d just got up and gone to sit with her). Yes, I’m very proud :-)
The most damning thing you could say about a more caring society is that it sounds soft, and perhaps a bit dull. But being kind, don’t forget, means more of the “love drug” for all of us. And this isn’t instead of all the fun stuff of modern life, like flying and skiing and football and theatre and trains. Kindness is icing, if you like, on the cake of capitalism.
Amid the noise and haste to get back to business and shopping as usual, let’s hope we don’t forget about what matters: creating a world where as many of us as possible can live exciting, entertaining, fulfilling, long lives. Instead of hurrying back to the drudgery of work, I think we have an incredible opportunity: to create a kinder capitalism. I think we’ll be more likely to do this, and quicker, if we start with a big, simple measure for well-being.
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