We become what we think: the key role of mindsets in human development

Jürgen Nagler provides seven points on rethinking human development from a ‘mindset’ point of view.

The ISC is featuring contributions from the global science community on Rethinking Human Development. This is a joint project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Jürgen Nagler provides seven points on rethinking human development from a ‘mindset’ point of view.

‘Because mindsets and paradigms guide behaviors, changing them can have a profound impact… People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transform systems.’

Donna Meadows

Beyond GDP: towards Sustainable Development Goals and well-being

While development efforts showcase success stories, such as the decrease in the number of people living in extreme poverty, the current paradigm is unable to fully explain the successes and failures of development interventions. As we increasingly live beyond our planetary boundaries, inequality and mental health issues have been rising, and happiness and well-being remain elusive for many around the world.

Furthermore, given the number of crises — from climate change to COVID-19 — alongside the ambitious nature of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is an urgent need to investigate the effectiveness of the 20th century human development paradigm for the 21st century. While the current human development approach shifted the development focus from gross domestic product (GDP) to a somewhat broader perspective some 30 years ago, we have not made major progress since to truly advance human development in a holistic manner.

Calls for a more holistic human development paradigm are supported by the ‘Beyond GDP’ movement as well as other well-being initiatives around the world, and have also been recognized by the United Nations’ General Assembly. These global mindsets are very similar to paradigms in that they are the source of manifesting systems. As Achim Steiner, UNDP’s Administrator, stated:

‘We are now on the verge of shifting into an economic paradigm that is not about communism or capitalism; it is about recalibrating equity and sustainability into a development paradigm.’

Achim Steiner, 2020

Key questions

Based on the need to rethink human development, the following key questions come to mind. How can we shift towards a holistic development mindset that advances physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being? Are we willing to leapfrog to an enlightened paradigm that recognizes and develops humans as multi-dimensional beings? How can we harmoniously advance the well-being of both people and planet?

We protect and develop what we cherish, what we feel part of and connected with. So, how can we nurture three essential connections: with our inner being, with our communities and with Mother Nature? The opportunity to create a new paradigm for the 21st century comes from combining current science with timeless wisdom. Could the root causes and transformative power of human development be within us?

Inspiration from Bhutan

Some countries have not fallen into the trap of blindly pursuing GDP and materialistic growth. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) awarded Bhutan with a Special Award of Recognition for holistically advancing human development in 2019. Bhutan famously declared gross national happiness (GNH) to be more important than GDP. GNH is a holistic and sustainable approach to development, which is based on nine pillars that balance material and non-material values.

Gross National Happiness (GNH)

It is noteworthy that GNH should not to be confused with a shallow understanding of fleeting happiness. Rather, GNH is a multi-dimensional approach which some argue is more holistic than the SDGs, given that it also entails dimensions such as psychological well-being, time use and community vitality. The COVID-19 crisis has amplified this importance of mental health. But even before the crisis began, a staggering 800,000 people died due to suicide every year globally.

Furthermore, Bhutan is heralded as a global example of a carbon-negative country that lives in harmony with nature. It is a biodiversity hotspot and is often seen as a leader in sustainable tourism. Its strong emphasis on health and protecting communities is seen as a success factor, and has notably allowed the country to well handle the COVID-19 crisis. It is evident that Bhutan’s enlightened development approach and leadership has led to extraordinary poverty reduction while also protecting the environment.

‘Our generation is called upon to rethink, to redefine the true purpose of growth and, in doing so, to find a growth that is truly sustainable. We must never forget that, for lasting peace and happiness in this world, the journey forward has to be one that we must all make together… It all starts with leadership of the self.’

His Majesty the 5th King of Bhutan, 2011

The blind spot: mindsets

The strong focus of development assistance on external factors and measurable progress has left aside an understanding of internal factors and potential hidden root causes. Internal factors such as mindsets can play a transformative role in people’s, nations’ and humanity’s development journey.

While there has been research on behavioural insights, self-empowerment, personal development, leadership and transformation in some specialized fields such as psychology, sociology, philosophy and neuroscience, there has been no – or minimal – direct connection made to human development approaches. There is indeed a significant knowledge gap on inner dimensions – such as people’s mindsets – which are difficult to measure.

These ‘soft’ inner factors have, so far, not been well considered in the field of human development, in contrast to ‘hard’ indicators such as income levels, life expectancy and years of education. This underscores the need for a new holistic approach that takes into account the interaction between internal and external factors, in order for development to be transformative and advance sustainable well-being for people and planet. As Nobel peace prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus illuminates: ‘Unless we change our mind we cannot change the world.’ (Address to the Social Business Forum 2019).

The key role of mindsets

Mindsets are the invisible leverage point to be included in a new 21st century human development paradigm. Mindsets are made up of our deep beliefs, attitudes and values; they frame our thinking, and therefore determine our behaviour, life experiences and journey. They influence how people lead their lives, how they vote, what personal, educational and professional opportunities they pursue, and what they make out of crises, challenges and opportunities. Even national policies and global development goals spring off national and global mindsets.

For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, we can either perceive staying at home as being forced into lockdown or consider it as voluntarily protecting our vulnerable elderly. Mindsets are not, of course, a panacea and external factors should not be negated altogether. However, by acknowledging the role of inner dimensions, foremost mindsets, we emphasize the agency that people have in realizing their true human potential. History is full of change makers and social leaders who have overcome and changed their external circumstances and structures, and therefore written history.

Need for a global mindset shift

It is widely accepted that the SDGs cannot be achieved by business as usual. For behaviour and actions to be different, we require a new way of thinking, a new mindset and a sense of urgency for transformational change. The urgency to shift towards a development paradigm that finally translates the ‘beyond GDP’ aspiration into a well-being and sustainability mindset with its corresponding concept and measurements is increasing.

In systems thinking and leadership, shifting mindsets is considered the highest leverage point to change a system – even higher than policies and goals. Shifting the global mindset towards a well-being economy can be inspired by examples from Bhutan, Costa Rica and New Zealand, amongst others. This indeed also reflects the call by UN Deputy Secretary-General for a ‘New paradigm shift to replace the traditional sustainable development approach to realize the 2030 Agenda’.

Suggestions for mindset shifts

While we are largely unaware of mindsets due to their intangible nature, they can be changed. Pressing issues such as greed, violence and discrimination also start in our mind, and in the minds and hearts are the keys to transformational development.

Six mindset-shifting suggestions:

  • Sustainable transformation happens from the inside out.
  • Mindsets matter. They play an important role in human development at the individual, collective and global level.
  • Mindsets can be shifted by increasing awareness, and fostering self-reflection and self-responsibility.
  • Solutions need to be co-created which requires a mindset shift of development practitioners themselves.
  • Current development approaches are too materialistic; therefore, they need to move beyond overly focusing on GDP and economic development.
  • A new holistic development paradigm should include inner, collective and planetary well-being.

While the above-mentioned points indicate the important role of mindsets, there is a blind spot in the academic and development literature. This calls for further research exploring the role that mindsets play in human development, towards sustainability, transformation and well-being for people and planet.


Jürgen Nagler is the UNDP’s Bhutan Deputy Resident Representative. He has over 20 years’ experience in successfully delivering global, regional and field projects with UNDP, UN Global Compact, international non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

Cover image: by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Share: