Ireland is a case study in progress. The United Nations ranks the country second in the world on human development – level with Switzerland and behind only Norway.
Incomes in Ireland are now among the world’s highest, with workers’ incomes continuing to increase in real terms. The country has one of the most educated populations, as half of all working-age adults have completed tertiary education. And the Irish rank themselves as the healthiest people in Europe, living only two years less than the world’s longest: the Japanese.
Unsurprisingly, high levels of well-being are evident in the population: 97% agree or strongly agree that they are generally happy with their lives. As Ireland approaches her 100th anniversary as an independent nation in 2022, her people have much to be pleased about – and much to teach the world.
Hundreds of research studies have begun to tease out the factors that contribute to well-being at a population level. These factors include meeting basic human needs, such as economic development and healthcare, but also social and cognitive factors such as greater levels of education, leisure time, and interpersonal trust.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for identifying the hierarchy of human needs. In my new book, In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100, I take these emerging research findings and merge them with Maslow’s model to produce a hierarchy of national needs. The result is a blueprint for national well-being.
At the bottom of the hierarchy are the physiological needs – the most basic ones needed for human survival. Economic development provides the financial means for citizens to look after themselves and for the state to step in to provide adequate income security if they cannot. A good healthcare system and a healthy natural environment help us live healthier and longer-lasting lives.
Next up are the safety needs, which, in a national context, are ensuring that there is a solid rule of law, an absence of corruption, good quality governance, and political stability. The need for love and belonging is met through high interpersonal trust and strong community bonds. I include urban living here as, although it meets several different needs, it reduces isolation and makes it easier for people to find companionship.
Esteem needs comprise the desire to be recognized by others and to feel respected. Personal and political freedoms enable individuals to express themselves. A high level of democracy ensures that they can influence how the country is run. I believe globalization fits here too. Free trade delivers financial benefits that help people meet their physiological needs, and an open, internationally engaged society allows its citizens to contribute to and be recognized on the world stage.
Maslow’s later work added cognitive and aesthetic needs to his hierarchy – the need for knowledge, understanding, and beauty. Greater education brings personal benefit, but a highly educated population also contributes to national well-being by enabling the country to better benefit from globalization. It can also help to expand freedom by insisting on toleration and higher standards of governance. I include leisure pursuits here, too, as they often involve people using their talents to benefit their communities, e.g., creating art or music, coaching sports, or simply attending cultural events and dining out.
Top of the pile, Maslow identified the need for self-actualization and transcendence, or the realization of one’s full potential and the need to reach out beyond oneself to help others. A flourishing society, high levels of generosity, and a widespread sense of meaning are evidence of this.
The resultant blueprint for national well-being can help policymakers enhance their citizens’ lives. It explains how the policies pursued in Ireland have contributed to the population’s improvement and why the country has risen up the UN rankings faster than any other developed nation over recent decades.
Real incomes in Ireland have risen markedly, poverty has declined, health spending has mushroomed, and pollution has decreased. Crime is at a low level and falling, and corruption is very low by international standards.
The country retains high levels of community and interpersonal trust. It has become one of the world’s most democratic and globalized places, and the personal freedoms it affords its citizens have increased in leaps and bounds in recent years. The Irish are extremely well educated, and they are generous – both as individuals and in terms of development aid.
The evidence I present in ‘In Fact’ is that Irish society is flourishing. There are many challenges facing the country today, of course, but no previous generation has been better positioned to contribute to the improvement of their communities, their country, and the world.
Policymakers elsewhere can apply the blueprint to assess the impact of policy choices on well-being. Although Maslow viewed his hierarchy as a linear progression from one need state to the other, in a national context it is possible – and preferable – to address multiple elements in parallel through complementary initiatives.
But we can only know that progress is being achieved if we measure it. Ireland has now joined other nations in developing a suite of well-being indicators that will allow administrations to set targets and track improvements. I encourage others to start on the same journey of assessing human progress in their own jurisdiction.