Living Legacies for Well-being in the Nation

By Tyler Norris, MDiv, Chief Executive, Well Being Trust

Despite ever-increasing spending on health care services, our nation’s health status progressively worsens. Life expectancy declined for a second consecutive year, a trend fueled by surging death rates related to drug and alcohol misuse and suicide. In the next decade, rates for these deaths of despair are projected to double.

Nationwide, a growing sense of loneliness, social isolation and hopelessness, as toxic as second-hand smoke, underlie many of the behaviors that drive chronic disease and higher costs, and contribute to diminished education and economic outcomes.

While ensuring access for all to affordable quality care makes good economic sense and is morally right, simply investing more money in treatment won’t prevent ill health from increasing.

As a nation, we must liberate ourselves from a health care business model that costs more and delivers less. We must be bolder in our vision and more deliberate in knitting together the constituencies and factors that contribute to good health, not just health care. To do so, our nation must address the root causes of health in the places and spaces we spend most of our time — our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.

The good news: across the nation, many communities and regions are bucking the trends and demonstrating how to improve outcomes. Rural and urban, conservative and progressive, coastal and heartland — community “bright spots” are lighting a wise path forward.

At the core, these diverse locales are advancing innovative solutions in the form of practice and policy changes and wise use of capital markets and other impact investments. Rooted in community experience and priorities, the growing evidence base of what works, and supported by leaders across sectors and political perspectives — our nation is being presented with a profound opportunity to advance health and well-being in a way that leverages the best of our democracy.

This is one of the reasons Well Being Trust was founded: to innovate and drive aligned action on the array of factors and conditions that impact health and well-being — both inside but especially outside clinic walls.

One of our first initiatives Well Being Legacy — now being advanced by more than fifty community and national partners — is rooted in seven vital conditions for intergenerational health and well-being, i.e., the properties of places and institutions that we all depend on to be healthy and well:

1. Humane Housing

2. The Basic Needs for Health and Safety

3. Reliable Transportation

4. Belonging and Civic Muscle

5. Stable Environment

6. Meaningful Work and Wealth

7. Lifelong Learning

To deepen our learning and begin to coalesce around an actionable set of promising strategies for positive impact in each area, we’ve been traveling across the country, hearing from thousands of community members and leaders about their experiences (good, bad, and otherwise) in creating the conditions for intergenerational well-being — the conditions that ensure the decisions we make today benefit those living now and those yet to be born.

From Anchorage to Atlanta, and Pine Ridge to New York City, we see signs of promise emerging. Thankfully, we also find that the national partisan divide is far less present in routine community life, especially where people work together to address common challenges with practical solutions.

In these local initiatives, we find an increased sense of belonging and understanding of common fate with people working together across lines that too often divide. This portends well for a nation desperately in need of moral imagination and rediscovering its ability to apply democracy to positively address the issues of our time. But this isn’t ubiquitous, yet.

James Fallows recently wrote in The Atlantic about this very subject, closing with: “Across the country we have seen rays of its new light.” He’s right — the capability of Americans to come together for the common good isn’t gone, it’s very real, but it is in significant jeopardy.

Well Being Legacy highlights these rays of light and illuminates the path for improved outcomes. This initiative is working to shape and advance a “living agenda” — of the organizational practices, public policies, and private sector investments that can assure the conditions for human flourishing–knowing that the choices we make now hold the promise for better health for the youth of today and tomorrow. Our inquiry: What will be our legacy? What legacies have we inherited that we want to change?

Well Being Legacy intends to help build the capacity to advance substantive work around the vital conditions, with sufficient “dose” for population level results, thereby ensuring the necessary reach, intensity, and duration to measurably increase well-being. Notably, this isn’t about one-off programs or projects, but, rather, about advancing comprehensive and cross-cutting systemic work across the vital conditions in a way that creates pathways to potential for all Americans.

Well Being Legacy is connecting leaders across traditional and non-traditional sectors — creating complementary benefits (co-benefits) for the built environment, for racial equity, for food justice, for improved child development, among others.

The immediate next step is furthering these connections with all of you — building the important relationships that reach across sectors and aisles; allow for shared learning; and continue to elevate community successes.

This is our work.

We believe this is your work as well.

Join us.

We may live in divisive times, but our well-being is bound up in one another. The legacy we seek must be advanced together. Onward!

Tyler Norris, MDiv, is chief executive, Well Being Trust, an impact philanthropy with a mission to advance the mental, social and spiritual health of the nation. Over the past three decades, Tyler has shaped health and development initiatives in hundreds of communities in the US and around the world. He has an extensive background as a social entrepreneur, animateur, and trusted advisor to philanthropies, health systems, government agencies and collaborative partnerships working to improve the health of people and places. Follow Tyler on Twitter: @TylerNorrisMDiv.