Can we place a value on well-being? Apparently, yes. Given how the world has reacted to the pandemic, health and well-being have infinite value. We will sacrifice our livelihood, our children’s education and many pleasures in order to maintain or protect health and well-being.
Although it doesn’t always feel like it, well-being is a little more within our control than health and COVID-19. Right now, it is also of paramount concern and importance - particularly when we consider the well-being of our elders who have been locked indoors for almost a year and who only have virtual interactions, even with grandchildren. Or the well-being of parents juggling home schooling with preparing three meals a day and house chores while continuing to work. Then there’s the wider well-being of us all, living without social activities and our normal forms of physical exercise, thanks to the closure of gyms.
So how can we bolster reserves to ensure that we are at our best each day? Neuroscience teaches us that performance is based on behaviour, which is based on what we think. This in turn is affected by what we feel and our emotions. And these depend on physiology which can be transformed by our habits and rest on our values.
As tied up neatly by Mahatma Gandhi:
‘Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.’
In my book The Values Compass, I focus on exactly this. Words and thoughts dictate how we feel, behave and believe – and, most importantly, what we believe about ourselves. Our values are a combination of nature and nurture, and some cultures prize certain principles more than others. Costa Ricans, for example, do not generally greet with hello or good day, but with the salutation ‘pura vida’, a phrase that literally translates into ‘pure life’. It carries that sentiment in all forms, from living well and indulging in small everyday pleasures to being positive. The emphasis is on building a sense of happiness and contentment.
Of course, you might think this is easy when surrounded by such a natural paradise. That you too would have a greater sense of well-being if you could zip-line through the treetops, hike up volcanoes, descend into bat caves and take time out for a mindful forest bath. Anyone would find their heart beat regulates and pulses naturally with the rhythm of the ecosystem in these circumstances. Yet, we do not have to visit Costa Rica in order to benefit from the restorative power of nature.
It’s true that the country has taken deliberate actions to maintain peace, such as abolishing its army and investing the defence budget in health care, education and social security instead. Also, rather than deplete natural resources like its neighbours, it has been actively working to reforest and reverse deforestation: already coverage is back to 50 percent from 26 percent in 1983, and the target is 70 percent by the end of the year. This helps Costa Rica maintain its status as one of the most biodiverse nations on the planet, home to over 500,000 different species.
Ecuador is another country that values nature, honouring Pachamama (mother earth) before all else. This is buen vivir – literally, the good way of living, which focuses not on the individual but on each person’s place in society and the natural environment. Its socioeconomic model prioritises the habitat (rather than inhabitants) in order to create a greater quality of life so that everyone has the room to breathe. The idea is that people work to live rather than vice versa, and both physical and mental well-being is nurtured.
Numerous studies show how spending time outside and in nature is good for our health and state of mind; we are better and happier when we get out from behind the screen and into the fresh air. In many ways, especially through the majesty that is the Galapagos, Ecuador shows us that when Pachamama is revered, respected and replenished, we reap the benefits over again. Both countries – as well as Bhutan which focuses on Gross National Happiness rather than the GDP – are role models that demonstrate how putting well-being at the forefront can lead to an impressive quality of life. There is a lesson in this for us all.
Dr Mandeep Rai is a global authority on values, working with companies, institutions, and individuals around the world. She has travelled to more that 150 countries and reported as a journalist for the BBC World Service and Reuters, amongst others. She is the bestselling author of The Values Compass: What 101 Countries Teach Us About Purpose, Life and Leadership.