September 25, 2015 saw the uniting of nations in a pledge to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. It was a uniting of diverse cultures and faiths. It was a uniting of diverse sectors of governments, business, and civil society. It was a coming together moment of the human species in transcending our own generation’s narrow self-interests to envisage our common futures.

The Sustainable Development Goals are the product of a lengthy, complex, and sometimes difficult conversations in the international community that our nation’s leaders and many actors across countries and sectors participated in. The adoption of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals are thus cause for celebration. They manifest true and steadfast leadership. In the words of MIT Sloan faculty and Tsinghua University 1000 Talents Professor Otto Scharmer, it is “a distributed or collective capacity in a system, not just something that individuals do. Leadership is about the capacity of the whole system to sense and actualize the future that wants to emerge.”

As we sense the emerging future in these seventeen goals, what emerges.. almost by miracle.. is the reflection of roots of cultures and spiritual philosophies that have guided the lives of many communities around the world for centuries.

The first ten Sustainable Development Goals (SDG1-10) from Poverty to Gender and Inequalities relate to social needs, humanitarian, economic development,

inclusiveness or people issues. The next five goals (SDG 11-15) from Sustainable Cities to Climate Change to Nature relate to sustainability and ecology whilst the final goals (SDG 16-17) on Peace and Partnerships relate to the spiritual and values aspects.

The Sustainable Development Goals are intended to do at least two things. First, the Sustainable Development Goals communicate a vision for the world – a beacon on the horizon that serves as a compass for the world so that we can meet our responsibilities to succeeding generations. Second, the seventeen goals combine to provide a tangible guide to our daily lives – a set of reference points to advise us what to do as peoples, as consumers, producers, business, and policy makers.

The observation that the Sustainable Development Goals are an expression of long held cultural and religious traditions is thus significant. An awareness that these goals are an expression of our cultures means that they can become part of our daily lives if we return to these roots and core values. They combine to give us a narrative for our lives.

The universal theme of this narrative is about securing happiness, or balance and harmony of human beings within three realms. These three realms are Spiritual realm, the Ecological realm and the Social realm.

IDEAS Fellows4 learn that these symptoms plaguing the world can be depicted as the three divides: ecological divide concerning the natural environment (self and nature); the social divide concerning the socioeconomic divides that characterize our local, national and global communities (self and others); and the spiritual-values divides that become artificial barriers to our potential (self to potential self).

This insight provides a simpler visually more pleasing narrative of the seventeen goals grounded in our existing core values.


Bali Indonesia (Hindu Religious Root)

Tri Hita Karana

Tri Hita Karana is a traditional philosophy for life on the island of Bali, Indonesia. The literal translation is “Tri” for three, “Hita” for happiness and “Karana” for causes or ways. Tri Hita Karana depicts the Balinese philosophy of the Three Ways to Happiness. These three ways referred to in principle are: i) harmony of people with people, ii) harmony of people with nature and iii) harmony of people with the spiritual or creation. The principle of Tri Hita Karana guides many aspects of Balinese life with Hindu religious roots.

Around APEC in 2013, the United in Diversity Creative Campus in Kura Kura Bali was launched at the “Tri Hita Karana International Conference for Sustainable Development” presided by the Indonesian President as the home to the future United Nation’s global initiative Sustainable Development Solutions Network Southeast Asia.

The United in Diversity Creative Campus aims to promote the Sustainable Development Goals aligning with the local Balinese Tri Hita Karana Three Ways to Happiness values. Partners present come from Columbia University, Tsinghua University, University of Indonesia, Udayana University, Microsoft, WPP, MAP et al. Many initiatives including solutions challenges and youth networks have been created in raising awareness to the Sustainable Development Goals and the building of the Kura Kura Bali Island – an Island of Happiness.

Since then the Indonesian Minister of Energy and the Bali Governor has announced that Bali will be the National Center of Excellence aiming for 100% clean and maximum renewable energy inviting business, technology providers and academia to set up base in Bali to jointly test eco solutions that once proven, may be replicated across the rest of the vast Indonesian archipelago. The SDG Pyramid was initially created out of this intent of aligning the seventeen goals with local culture and core values.

This notion of happiness is the destination of countless searches. The achievement of balance in the ecological, peoples and spiritual is the path to happiness. The world has been searching for this from efforts to develop sustainable national accounts that recognize the value of natural wealth to Bhutan’s measurement of Gross National Happiness.

The UN in its 2012 resolution establishing “Happiness Day” reflected that it was “Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal, … recognizing also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples.”

The following graphic portrays the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals as a pyramid of these three key realms that are pivotal in determining fundamental individual happiness and true sustainability.

The SDG Pyramid

The Sustainable Development Goals can be an integral part of daily life in three tiers. When we view the SDGs from this traditional perspective we see a narrative of the goals grounded in existing core values. This contrasts dramatically with the more common view from “media” reports that the Sustainable Development Goals are a list of discrete and separate goals prescribed by an external body. The Sustainable Development Goals pyramid map out in elegance and simplicity aspirations to happiness through harmony of people, ecology, and spiritual values that guide daily life.

On a separate context, reflecting a holistic perspective, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, when taking his oath of office in December 2016, said that “.. Humanitarian response, sustainable development and sustaining peace are three sides of the same triangle..” 


Other Cultures and Spiritual Philosophies

The concept that happiness and harmony comes from sustainable balance across three realms – people, ecological and spiritual – is also found in other religions and philosophies. The following offers two examples.


Hablum minallah, hablum minannas, (hablum minalam )

Islam views people and nature as one. The phrase refers to god or the spiritual (Allah), people, (Annas), and nature (Alam). People are reflected in nature; when a human’s inner being is not in harmony this will turn nature to disorder while internal harmony will be reflected in nature. Thus, nature is not something separate that can be managed rather its stability is a symbol that the existence of human beings is in equilibrium. True happiness flows from man who is at peace with his/her self, as well as with community and nature.

Chinese Ancient Philosophy

Tian Di Ren He (天地人和 )

In the phrase, ‘tian 天 ’ means sky or the spiritual; ‘di 地’ is mother earth or nature; ‘ren 人’ is people; and ‘he 和’ is the harmony thereof. Harmony through the joining together of the Spiritual with Nature and with People is part of the ancient Chinese philosophy. To return to Tao is the solution for everything – for happiness. Tao teaches that there is no separation between philosophy as theoretical guidance and practice or the practical exercise. Philosophy is the most powerful practice.

Tsinghua School of Economics and Management and Public Policy are grounded by these values, Tsinghua School of Engineering has created programs on Ethics aligned around this philosophy.


The World Happiness Report

We believe this framework links closely to the concept of Happiness that the United Nations has presented in recent years. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commissioned the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in 2012, with goals such as ending world hunger and poverty, ensuring healthy lives, and promoting well-being. This network of leaders from academia, governments and the private sector published their first happiness report in 2012.

The 2017 ranking, prepared by the SDSN, shows that Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to 1st place, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch.5 While recognizing the subjectivity of the concept, the SDSN used three different aspects to try to come to a general measure of the feeling: residents’ evaluations of their situations, positive feelings about their lives (like joy and pride), and their negative ones (like anger and worry).

The top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. Norway moves to the top of the ranking despite weaker oil prices. It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it. By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies. To do this successfully requires high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance, all factors that help to keep Norway and other top countries where they are in the happiness rankings.

All of the other countries in the top ten also have high values in all six of the key variables used to explain happiness differences among countries and through time—income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.

Happiness appears to be linked to social equality and community spirit rather than how much money you earn or how big a car you drive. The Danish government website observes that “while taxes might be high they do play an important role in securing Danes’ happiness by helping create a level the playing field. Denmark is a relatively egalitarian country where the costs of health care, college education and child care are shared.” The website quotes the 18th century Danish thinker Nikolaj Grundtvig, who observed that Denmark is a country where “few have too much, and even fewer have too little.”

Several governments have brought focus on the concept of happiness. Bhutan’s long-standing concept of Gross National Happiness is best known. Several countries have appointed “ministers of happiness.” In addition to Bhutan this includes the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, endorsed the launch of corporate happiness and positivity initiatives in the UAE Federal Government.

He observed that “happiness and positivity in the UAE are a lifestyle, a government commitment and a spirit uniting the UAE community. The government system is evolving to realize the goals that every human seeks: happiness for him and his family.” He went on saying “we are at the beginning of our journey, learning day-by-day to achieve goodness and happiness for the individual. We wish happiness for all the peoples and countries in the world.”


SDG Pyramid to Happiness

The common thread across these universal philosophies is the concept that happiness and wellbeing comes from balance across three realms related to people, related to ecology and related to the spiritual. Normatively, the challenge is to grasp the seemingly disparate goals and bridge across these three realms. Initiated with the Balinese Tri Hita Karana ways to Happiness with Hindu roots, it is later discovered that many other major cultures and communities uphold the same values to harmony.

“The Indonesian government is fully committed to the Sustainable Development Goals which has been incorporated into our National Planning.. ” Indonesian Minister of National Development Planning Bambang Brodjonegoro conveyed in the lead up to the UN Day of Happiness “ I am delighted to join United in Diversity Foundation and UN SDSN Indonesia initiative to launch the SDG Pyramid to Happiness awareness campaign..”

We join in proposing that the Sustainable Development Goals may henceforth also be elegantly projected as The SDG Pyramid to Happiness.