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Jacinda Ardern has been getting my attention for some time now. Although I do follow global politics fairly closely, I would not be able to name any previous New Zealand Prime Ministers aside from the this current young female Prime Minister. She stands out. She is not only attracting my attention. In my opinion, never before has a prime minister of such a small country (New Zealand has less than 5 million inhabitants) been in the Dutch news so often with such positive news coverage.

Part of that coverage was concerned with her conduct in response to the attacks in Christchurch. Jacinda Ardern was praised in the media for her wonderful combination of warmth and decisiveness that she demonstrated. In her speech after the attack, she used an entirely different language than that of her international colleagues speeches after terrorist attacks. Post September 11th, George Bush talked about a ‘war on terror.’ Dutch premier Rutte spoke of ‘a war against IS’ after the attacks in Paris.  Whereas Jacinda Ardern used the words ‘As-salaam Alaikum’ – ‘peace be upon you’. She predicates peace and not war, yet she has also proven her decisiveness by amending the law on weapons and by banning semi-automatic weapons at a very fast pace. Something Americans did not do, and which Ardern openly expressed her astonishment about.

The New Zealand Prime Minister was recently in the news again when she announced her intention to invest heavily in the welfare of the New Zealand population. With a focus on happiness instead of economic growth. When you look at the rolling out of these plans, it seems to be mainly about fair play and anti-aggression measures. However, the tone has been set with the focus on happiness and well-being and the New Zealand budget reached the international press.


Apparently a focus on happiness instead of economic growth is relatively newsworthy. Although this has been a trend for some time now. The King of Bhutan, for instance, had already focused on happiness back in the 1970s. He even introduced a novel measure for mapping out the state of a country: the Gross National Happiness index. Yet this standard did not come without criticism and the success of his politics is subject to considerable debate.

We also see examples within Western politics. One of the best-known of these is the role that Cass Sunstein played in American politics at the request of Barack Obama. As an advisor to Obama and an assessor of new legislation, Sunstein gained a strong position within the backdrop of Obama’s politics. Sunstein, together with Nobel Prize winner of the economy Richard Thaler, are considered to be ‘the godfathers of nudging‘. Nudging is all about giving a slight and friendly shove in the right direction so as to encourage others to behave in a way that is more conducive to their own personal well-being. The two men wrote the book “Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness.” The book received praise as well as criticism. There is a good deal of psychology behind the practice of nudging, and you may ask yourself whether the government might be assuming a role that is unduly paternalistic. Sunstein and Thaler fiercely rejected the criticism in a plea for a movement that they call ‘libertarian paternalism.’ A movement where citizens still maintain complete freedom of choice, but where they are gently steered in a direction that promotes their own well-being.

It’s just a tiny step from politics to science via Sunstein. We have also been seeing the emergence of disciplines within science which focus on happiness for many years now. This is how we see the trend in economics that is also referred to as the ‘economics of happiness’. Some of the big names here are Layard and Easterlin, of whom Easterlin is mainly known for his Easterlin paradox formulated in the 1970s: over time, incomes will rise in a country but the level of happiness will not. In the field of psychology spearheaded by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ( who is responsible for ‘flow’), we see a school of thought that has also been termed ‘positive psychology’ wherein the focus is not on mental health problems, but on the possibilities for improving everyone’s state of mind, even when there are no apparent problems. We are also increasingly seeing an emphasis on happiness in the workplace with the advent of ‘Chief Happiness Officers’.

The key question underlying these trends is ‘how do we measure progress? When will things improve in the future? More conventional answers to these questions are: when there is more money and/or more opportunities. Progress then goes hand in hand with technological developments and with the economic strength of a society. More recently, the answer to this question appears to be gradually changing. Do things get better when they are fairer? Do things improve when everything is more sustainable? Or will things be better when everyone is happier? What does a better tomorrow mean? I agree with the New Zealand Prime Minister’s answer to the question ‘when will things be better?’ – whereby it is not technological progress or economic prosperity that is key, but the human dimension.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns.