Sustainability and its Links to Well-Being

The United Nations 2021 Sustainable Development Report shows that most states in the US are far off the mark when it comes to meeting sustainability goals.  Those findings shouldn’t be surprising to those familiar with Sharecare’s Community Well-Being Index, a component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), “Good Health and Well-being”. While the 2021 Sustainable Development Report cites COVID-19 as a contributor to the US’s lack of progress toward sustainable development because stay-at-home orders revealed and intensified social risk factors for underserved populations, the report also showed that many states, especially in the South, were already lagging in progress pre-pandemic. Sharecare research shows a strong relationship between state rankings for well-being and state rankings for sustainable development.

SDG 3, “Good Health and Well-being,” fosters ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, at all ages.” While it is derived from public health metrics such as deaths and births, life expectancy, access to care and insurance, it also considers subjective well-being via Sharecare’s Community Well-Being Index because the Sharecare measure comprises aspects of mental, physical, financial and community health. Understanding well-being provides a wide range of sustainable development insights beyond health to access to resources to productivity to transportation.

Michael Rickles, Sharecare’s Executive Director of Research and contributor to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Index development, explained the importance of well-being as part of the SDG goals.  “It is a measure that the United Nations and partners are ensuring that city leaders are accountable for not only the institutions and social structures established across their communities, but also, for how these places and policies impact and enable people. Because the primary goal for any city leader is to ensure their population is thriving, it makes sense that one goal for sustainable development would be to ensure efforts are aligning to foster happy, resilient, and productive populations.” 

Commonalities across Measures 

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) all contribute, in some measure, to its Sustainable Development Index and its associated state and regional rankings.  While well-being is only one of well over 100 variables leveraged in the UN SDSN measure, subsequent Sharecare research reveals a strong relationship between state rankings for well-being and state rankings for sustainable development, including 70% of the same states falling into the same top and bottom quintile of rankings for sustainable development and well-being.

Of the individual variables included in the UN SDSN measure, research showed the strongest relationship between well-being and broadband access levels, tying individual health to access to technology infrastructure.

Conflicts between Sustainability and Well-Being 

The World Happiness Report (WHI) – which capitalizes on the same well-being fundamentals as Sharecare’s Well-Being Index – indicated that most SDGs and their underlying measures show strong correlations with higher levels of population well-being. Two SDGs, however, showed negative relationships with well-being at the country level.  SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production  – and SDG 13 – Climate Action – showed negative relationships with well-being.   

The Happiness Report states it is unlikely that higher rates of waste and pollutants coincide with improved well-being; but rather that countries and municipalities with higher environmental impact may likely be more economically developed. Further, experts feel that these SDGs may not capture how people value the environment.  “This environmental paradox has been studied, and potential explanations have been presented on how technology and innovation have decoupled well-being from nature to a well-being dependent on services that cause environmental impact,” says Rickles, “but this paradox exists nonetheless, putting a wrench in how government and community leaders can meet sustainability goals while still providing transit and other resources that enhance well-being for their constituents.” 

Finding Solutions 

Despite complex relationships between subjective well-being, resources, and measures of environmental health, public health experts and researchers continue to reinforce the importance of striving toward sustainable development initiatives and goals, including SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 13 – Climate Action.  

In 2019, the United States emitted 6.6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases and over 5 billion tons of CO2 emissions – the second highest in the world behind China—and while the current White House administration is more focused on climate change compared to the prior, results from the UN SDSN on progress are sobering, with only three states on track for SDG 12 and only one state on track for SDG 13. Tying to equity and broad well-being considerations, research has shown that while affluent homes emit 25% more heat-trapping gases compared to poorer people at home, the poor are more exposed to the dangers of climate crisis and emissions, increasing the health risk tied to pulmonary conditions, exaggerating already elevated levels of chronic conditions, limiting walkability and opportunities to leverage greenspace, and more.

To reduce health and other risks tied to climate change, stakeholders across industries are seeking solutions that enable improved environmental health and well-being simultaneously.  

ESG or Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance is now part of the corporate vocabulary, and companies across the country are strategizing at the highest level around how their corporate sustainability and responsibility, employee diversity, and commercial products and services are contributing to social value for people and communities, including considerations for both environment and health. Examples of companies implementing these combined strategies include Delta’s simultaneous commitment to employee well-being and carbon neutrality, State Farm’s ESG framework that includes both building resilient futures via environmental impact and empowering good neighbors through social initiatives that focus on community needs, and Lockheed Martin’s roadmap that addresses well-being, equity, and long-term sustainability.  In May 2020, an SEC’s Investor Advisory subcommittee recommended that the agency update its requirements for reporting around ESG so that a company’s work in ESG is broadly available and easily comparable.

Health systems and health plans in the US are also leaning into data-driven community benefit and contribution strategies that ensure patients and members are thriving in places that make the healthy choice the easy choice.  

“Focusing institutions and community resources toward achieving sustainability and well-being goals simultaneously is critical to ensuring a transition to healthy environments and must be carried over to the populations who need them the most,” says Rickles, “together, we have the opportunity to combine what we are doing for our communities, employees, and commercialization efforts – the most important piece is that we do it together, and consider how each touchpoint contributes to a better and healthier world for the people we collectively work with.”


Mui, Ylan. “White House Wants Universal Broadband by 2030, but Funding Could Take Years to Deliver.” CNBC, December 15, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/15/commerce-secretary-gina-raimondo-on-bidens-universal-broadband-plan.html.

“Sustainability : Delta Air Lines.” https://www.delta.com/us/en/about-delta/sustainability.

“Sustainable Development and Human Well-Being.” https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2020/sustainable-development-and-human-well-being/.

“United States Sustainable Development Report 2021,” November 22, 2021. https://resources.unsdsn.org/united-states-sustainable-development-report-2021.