Wellbeing: The foundation for sustainable change
- Wellbeing is deeply tied to sustainability, and a sole focus on financial concerns doesn’t account for underlying human needs and values. Global priorities have evolved from physical, mental, and social health, to a broader definition around quality of life, equity, education, employment, and the environment.
- Interest in wellbeing has grown since the Great East Japan Earthquake and COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals are making connections between sustainability, health, welfare, and poverty, all fundamental for a healthy society. This stems from people reassessing their priorities, with a curiosity around sustainable practices.
- Our research has found that people with greater wellbeing tend to be more sustainability conscious. Wellbeing is an important foundation for awareness and action on social and environmental issues.
- The foundation of a sustainable society is about ensuring people can take care of themselves and form meaningful relationships. Ensuring communities have a positive social and environmental impact is critical for a collectivist society like Japan, while creating opportunities to build individual agency.
Our 2022 research uncovered a critical insight that people with higher sustainability consciousness tend to share a sense of ‘yoyu’ — the space to be aware and take action on social and environmental issues.
This raised questions around whether ‘yoyu’ is a prerequisite for sustainability consciousness, and how this relates to the financial resources, time, and networks needed to become informed about sustainability.
Japan is one of the healthiest countries in the world, with the highest life expectancy and overall health outcomes.¹ But when it comes to happiness it’s a different story, with Japan ranking 47 out of 137 countries in the World Happiness Report, the lowest among G7 nations.²
According to a UNICEF report on children’s wellbeing³, Japan ranks 1st among 38 countries in terms of physical health, but 37th in terms of mental wellbeing. This suggests that children, much like adults, may have good physical health, but suffer from poor wellbeing.
Low levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction have persisted even through a period of rapid economic growth.⁴
These challenges made wellbeing a key area to explore in our latest study, looking at Japanese society from a wellbeing perspective to gain a deeper understanding of how to deliver sustainable transformation in Japan.
The emergence of wellbeing
Wellbeing was defined in the 1940s by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.⁵
However, wellbeing has multiple meanings and definitions.
In Japanese it can be translated as ‘kofuku’ or ‘shiawase’ (happiness) or ‘fukushi’ (welfare), depending on the context. In this report, we refer to wellbeing as “a good state of physical, mental and social wellbeing”, commonly identified in Japanese as ‘kofuku’ or ‘shiawase’.
Fabric considers wellbeing to be closely tied to sustainability, covering “the health and quality of life of people and communities, including access to education and employment, participation in society, and other relevant indicators, equity and planetary sustainability”.⁶
The discourse on wellbeing and sustainability is intertwined, tracing back to the 1960s and 1970s when rapid economic growth led to escalating levels of pollution and the emergence of several environmental challenges.
Following Bhutan’s introduction of GNH (Gross National Happiness) as an alternative to economic or material wealth indicators, many research institutes, international organisations, and companies have proposed alternative indicators and ideas to replace Gross National Product (GNP) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).⁷
In 2011 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Happiness Resolution, calling for public policies that promote the wellbeing and happiness of all people through sustainable economic development. Following this, the publication of the World Happiness Report began in 2012, tracking the status of happiness across the world.⁸
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are now widely recognised and embraced in Japan, were adopted in 2015. The 17 goals include a broad overview of today’s most pressing and urgent challenges, including ‘Good Health and Wellbeing’.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO acknowledged that this goal was primarily focused on ‘healthy lives’, but also stated that wellbeing goes beyond individual wellness and should be applied at a societal level, enabling resilient and sustainable communities.
The concept of wellbeing is at the heart of policymaking — integrating the economic, social, environmental, and health aspects of sustainable development — making this a central issue in conversations around our collective futures.
Wellbeing in Japan
While the concept of wellbeing isn’t as mainstream in Japan as in other countries, it’s steadily gained popularity in recent years. There’s been a rising tide of interest from the government and private sector, with a growing number of studies, policies, and actions being taken across society. This shift stems from a growing number of people reevaluating their lives and roles in society, and searching for more sustainable, holistic ways of living.
In 2011, as the UN adopted the Happiness Resolution, Japan was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami caused incredible suffering, and triggered people across the country to reevaluate their perspectives of happiness and ‘kizuna’ (enduring bonds between people, or a kind of social and community wellbeing).
In 2019, Japan’s Cabinet Office launched their own draft happiness index, while the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, and the Digital Agency also started promoting wellbeing initiatives.
While many SDGs and sustainability related policies are already integrated by local government, an increasing number are taking action on wellbeing, with 162 local governments actively measuring satisfaction and happiness.⁹ ¹⁰ ¹¹
Toyama Prefecture¹² places wellbeing at the heart of their growth strategy. The local government formulated their own wellbeing index based on input from residents — visualising their needs, evaluating the effectiveness of policies, and improving collaboration on policies and initiatives across sectors.
This kind of policy making suggests that local authorities understand the urgent need to build sustainable governance structures and systems in a nation facing falling birth rates and a rapidly ageing population.
The COVID-19 pandemic was another event that drove many people in Japan to reassess their priorities.
In urban areas like Tokyo, the pandemic triggered massive changes to traditional work expectations, with alternative lifestyles such as remote work and freelancing becoming more feasible. Amid these rapidly changing lifestyles, many people are relocating from cities to suburbs and rural areas, or living across both, reversing decades long trends.
With reduced work hours and commuting times, there’s been an increase in overall satisfaction in both health and work-life balance, according to the latest Cabinet Office data.¹³
It’s important to note that remote work has only been readily available for a select number of professions, mainly among higher income groups. These individuals have shown greater engagement at the workplace, suggesting a widening gap in resilience and workplace wellbeing in the post-pandemic world, depending on job type and sector.¹⁴
Our 2023 study found that around 30% of participants associate sustainability with ‘good health and wellbeing for all’. In the past three years this has risen to the 5th highest priority of the SDGs, with more prioritising wellbeing as part of their lives.
‘Protecting life below water’ and ‘climate action’ have topped the list with participants for three years in a row — indicating that sustainability in Japan has largely been associated with environmental issues.
Simultaneously, there is a growing interest in issues such as energy, poverty eradication, food security, sustainable cities and communities, and health and wellbeing — challenges that link directly to quality of life.
The 2011 earthquake and COVID-19 pandemic had far reaching consequences, prompting many to reevaluate their lifestyles and work habits. The result has been a growing awareness of sustainability, not just in communities and organisations, but also on an individual level.
As municipalities and businesses increasingly embrace sustainable development, individuals are also seeking their own sustainable practices that align with their values and circumstances.
Wellbeing status and sustainability consciousness
As explored above, the term wellbeing covers a broad set of meanings.
This study primarily focuses on the subjective perspective, measuring how satisfied and happy people are with their work and lives. Unlike traditional indicators such as life expectancy and income, subjective indicators focus on what people believe and how they feel.
Given that this is self assessed, when someone is asked about their satisfaction with their wellbeing, we’re prompting them to evaluate this based on their values and experience.
We used the following factors to assess participant wellbeing, merging aspects used by Gallup¹⁵ with the OECD Guidelines for Measuring Subjective Wellbeing¹⁶:
- Physical health and wellbeing;
- Mental health and wellbeing;
- Social wellbeing: Feeling connected to others and having strong relationships;
- Financial wellbeing: Being financially stable and satisfied;
- Career wellbeing: Fulfilment in job or career;
- Spiritual wellbeing: Fulfilment and purpose in life;
- Intellectual wellbeing: Finding stimulation and learning in everyday life; and
- Environmental wellbeing: Satisfaction with your daily environment.
In addition to general wellbeing questions, our study also considers work wellbeing through the following criteria:
- Work-life balance: The ability to switch on and off, and take time off;
- Job security: Financial security, without fear of losing one’s job;
- Job conditions: Positive feelings towards work;
- Social capital: Relationships with colleagues and others, feeling of acceptance;
- Appreciation and value: Evaluation and treatment for one’s experience, abilities, and achievements;
- Meaning and purpose: Feeling one’s work is meaningful and rewarding
- Competence and development: Awareness of learning and growth, satisfaction with career; and
- Agency and engagement: Attitude to discomfort and problems at work, willingness to take action for improvement.
The study results from 2023 show a clear correlation between overall wellbeing and sustainability consciousness. Among different generations, Boomers exhibited a greater awareness of sustainability and reported the highest levels of overall wellbeing. Millennials were both less sustainability conscious and had lower levels of wellbeing.
This implies that good wellbeing is a critical foundation for people to be able to contribute to a more sustainable future.
The study found that people in Japan have higher satisfaction with their physical wellbeing and environment. However, satisfaction levels around their financial situation and professional growth were noticeably lower.
These trends were observed across different levels of sustainability consciousness and generations. Notably, the factors that set apart the ‘high’, ‘low’, and ‘negative’ groups were (in order of prominence) intellectual, social, and spiritual wellbeing.
While financial security, a stable income, and a fulfilling job are crucial for overall wellbeing, they rank lowest in terms of satisfaction within the ‘low’ and ‘negative’ satisfaction groups.
The research found that sustainability consciousness is strongly linked to intellectual stimulation and social interaction. Companies can benefit by taking these into account when promoting wellbeing related initiatives, building effective communities.
This means it’s possible to engage individuals at lower levels of sustainability consciousness by developing community connections, useful services, and relevant learning content.
When considering the differences in career related wellbeing within groups at different consciousness levels (‘high’, ‘low’, and ‘negative’ groups), a distinct hierarchy of significance emerged:
- Meaning and purpose;
- Work-life balance; and
- Social capital (including a sense of acceptance and inclusion at work).
Inequality becomes apparent in groups where vital economic factors, such as job security and fair work policies are missing. Employees in the ‘low’ and ‘negative’ categories often express feelings of disempowerment and disengagement in the workplace.
In contrast, people with a strong commitment to sustainability tend to find their work more purposeful and rewarding. They have positive work relationships and maintain a satisfying balance between work and personal life.
Employee engagement and agency improve in organisations that strive to improve their work environments, and more conscious individuals then show greater interest in company sustainability initiatives.
People-centred sustainable change
The Japanese concept of ‘yoyu’, a sentiment shared by those with a high sustainability consciousness, is a good starting point to understand how wellbeing is the foundation of sustainable change.
It’s worth noting that self reported study results are typically lower in Japan due to a tendency for people to take a neutral stance¹⁷, although the consensus is that happiness and life satisfaction are both low in comparison to other countries.
This has led to government in Japan implementing happiness-centric policies, with a focus on shaping long term wellbeing.
Sustainability in Japan has been focused on environmental rather than social issues, although this year we’ve noted a shift towards areas such as health, welfare, and poverty reduction — challenges that are fundamental to building a sustainable, inclusive society.
There are also signs that, following the 2011 earthquake and COVID-19 pandemic, people are exploring more sustainable ways of working and living.
People with higher sustainability awareness experience better wellbeing, making wellbeing a crucial link that enables people to focus on environmental and social impact. Building on this foundation is critical for companies looking to deliver people-centric, sustainable transformation.
Sustainability requires us to display care towards others, be it marginalised groups or the environment. However, before caring for the outside world, it’s important to care for ourselves. This starts with nurturing relationships, then further expanding that care to encompass the broader community, society, nature, and future generations.
Japanese society has long-established practices for fostering these types of relationships, with concepts such as ‘Satoyama’ and ‘Satoumi’. These environments are cultivated by humans and in return, they provide invaluable resources and benefits to the communities where they co-exist, exemplifying a symbiotic relationship between people and nature.¹⁸
In this year’s World Happiness Report², an entire chapter is devoted to the relationship between altruism and wellbeing.
One of the key findings was that performing selfless acts for others, without expecting anything in return, brings immense satisfaction — a profound feeling that transcends borders. It’s also worth noting that those on the receiving end also experience an greater sense of wellbeing, leading to a virtuous cycle of altruistic behaviour.
Agency is just as important. Our research is aligned with insights from the World Happiness Report, with a greater sense of agency being a key enabler for sustainable change.
This is particularly true in collectivist Japan — where cultivating a sense of agency and belonging, in a community enabled to act on social and environmental impact, can be a key leverage point for sustainable transformation in Japanese companies and society as a whole.
- WHO, (2023) World Health Statistics. https://www.who.int/data/gho/publications/world-health-statistics
- Sustainable Development Solutions Network, (2023) World Happiness Report 2023. https://worldhappiness.report/
- UNICEF, (2023) Worlds of Influence: Understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries, Unicef-irc.org. https://www.unicef-irc.org/child-well-being-report-card-16
- 内閣府 幸福度に関する研究会, (2011) 幸福度に関する研究会報告―幸福度指標試案―. https://www5.cao.go.jp/keizai2/koufukudo/pdf/koufukudosian_sono1.pdf
- 前野 隆司, (2022) ‘第一章 ウェルビーイングの現在’, Wellbeing Report Japan 2022, pp. 2–5. https://society-of-wellbeing.jp/wp/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Well-Being_report2022.pdf
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- 猪狩 廣美, (2020) ‘幸福度調査の自治体行政への活用について―東京荒川区の取り組み事例を参考に―’, 経済・財政の「見える化」と「生活の満足度」に関するシンポジウム～地方自治体単位の分析と政策反映について～. 内閣府. https://www5.cao.go.jp/keizai-shimon/kaigi/special/reform/mieruka/shiryo3.pdf
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- 富山県,（2023) 富山県ウェルビーイング指標. https://www.pref.toyama.jp/100224/toyama-wellbeing-indicator.html
- 内閣府, (2022) 満足度・生活の質に関する調査報告書2022～我が国のWellbeingの動向～. https://www5.cao.go.jp/keizai2/wellbeing/manzoku/pdf/summary22.pdf
- 山本 勲, (2022) ‘アフターコロナに向けた ウェルビーイングと⽣産性の両⽴’, 令和４年度第２回厚生労働省雇用政策研究会. 2022年5⽉20⽇. https://www.mhlw.go.jp/content/11601000/000940700.pdf
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Fabric is a Strategic Design and Sustainability consultancy helping businesses move towards more innovative, sustainable futures. Based in Tokyo, we’ve been consulting with global and local companies since 2004. We have extensive experience bringing together design thinking, sustainability, and human insight to deliver good strategy for clients.