Focus on kindness and empathy to drive climate agenda 

Recasting climate action and sustainability as a route to happiness is an important strategy for governments seeking to engage people, communities, and companies in achieving sustainable development goals
Focus on kindness and empathy to drive climate agenda 

Bhutan measures its success as Gross National Happiness. 

Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated the International Day of Happiness on March 20, as a way of highlighting the importance of happiness to people around the world. 


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The idea was proposed by Bhutan, a country that has measured its success since the 1970s as Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. 

The pathway to this kind of happiness is described in a UN Resolution (66/281) as a more equitable, inclusive and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the wellbeing for all.

This vision of sustainable development was captured in 2015 in the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), described as the world’s best plan for a better future. 

These goals cover everything from climate action and good health and wellbeing to poverty reduction and gender equality and achieving them is about happiness, not hardship. 

The SDG icon and checkerboard depicting all 17 goals was designed by Richard Curtis and Jakob Trollbäck, providing a vibrant, dynamic and all-encompassing communications platform for a global transformation. 

The rainbow of colours signal that sustainability is so much more than being green. They are a reminder of the interconnected and indivisible social, environmental, and economic goals the world has set out to achieve by 2030.

Recasting climate action and sustainability as a route to happiness is an important strategy for governments seeking to engage people, communities, and companies in achieving the SDGs. 

Reshape the narrative

As Jeff Biggers, founder of the Climate Narrative Project points out, the climate crisis is also a communications crisis. There is an urgent need to reshape the narrative away from doom, gloom, hardship and sacrifice to opportunity, improvement, benefit, and reward.

To date, commentators and experts have driven many apart in debates over the science and what action to take, pitting ‘greens’ against deniers, creating doubt in the minds of people grappling with complicated physics and language like decarbonisation and net zero. 

Even the phrase climate action leaves the average person flummoxed. The majority are not moved to change their behaviour by scientific graphs and tonnes of carbon. 

They need a positive, motivating reason to care and this is more likely to be a social message around wellbeing than a statistic about melting ice sheets.

That is why a focus on kindness, empathy and happiness is a valuable strategy in policy making on climate change. Efforts to shape a more caring, equitable and inclusive society enable the collaboration and cooperation needed to transform our society. 

Leading with a social imperative to act can pave the way for co-created solutions and innovations that benefit people and the planet. 

As the climate emergency becomes more and more urgent, the imperative to protect people and their rights as we transform our energy, food, transport and industrial systems becomes more critical. 

Climate injustice

We have to avoid climate injustice at all costs and create the conditions for inclusive and equitable access to the benefits of clean air, green energy and sustainable food. 

The social and the environmental aspects of transitioning to a green economy have to go hand-in-hand. A reframe is needed, where positive societal action, regardless of its hue, contributes to sustainable development.

This applies at a business level too. Companies of all sizes have an important role to play in delivering strategies and actions to achieve the SDGs, and in educating and engaging their employees, customers, clients and suppliers. 

Showing the benefits of sustainability for innovation, new product development, employee retention, efficiency, community engagement, resilience and reputation, all help to grow an ecosystem of businesses playing their part to shape a better society.

Dr Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray.
Dr Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray.

Employees do their best work when they are doing something they enjoy, has meaning and improves their situation. 

For business, this means engaging your employees and stakeholders with your business purpose and enabling them to have a say in what constitutes success. 

For companies with ESG and sustainability policies in place, the challenge is to 1) engage employees with that strategy so that they own and live it; and 2) to connect the dots between social goals like diversity and inclusion, with environmental goals like reducing pollution and safeguarding nature. Thinking and working in silos will not deliver impact.

Happiness, it turns out, is not a fluffy, aspirational goal but a recognised strategy to achieve sustainable development. 

New Zealand has a budget that prioritises spending that will raise happiness levels in its society. 

Wellbeing budget

The wellbeing budget uses a Happiness Index metric that redefines value. The aim is to create cohesive communities with shared values, empowered and supported to tackle issues as complex as climate change.

This International Day of Happiness, the challenge we pose to businesses across Ireland is to get to know the SDGs and use them to shape a pathway to more sustainable businesses models that deliver wellbeing and happiness to society. The planet will reap the co-benefits of this approach and sustain humanity into the long term.

In a world where what gets measured gets done, let us count the smiles and sparks of joy, positive actions by companies and improved circumstances of thousands of people as they live more fulfilling, dignified lives. 

Building a healthy, happy, thriving society first will lead to climate action and we can employ our best storytellers to create a repository of these actions as a constant source of inspiration. Measuring this matters. 

And it is a graph people might actually want to see.

Dr Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray are co-founders of Change by Degrees, an award-winning business based in Kinsale, Co Cork. Dr Shine is chair of the board of trustees of the International Institute of Environment and Development and co-facilitator of the Structure Expert Dialogue of the UN Convention on Climate Change

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