Psychological contributions to sustainable development

Rashmi Jaipal, PhD, discusses the utility of psychological science in developing U.N. agenda for sustainable development.

By Rashmi Jaipal, PhD

This is an exciting time to be a psychologist at the United Nations (U.N.) as we are nearing the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, and the development of the post 2015 agenda is under way. Psychology has an increasingly important role to play in helping shape the future agenda. In 2000 the U.N. General Assembly committed to the MDGs (to eradicate extreme poverty, empower women) which resulted in an unprecedented global partnership to implement them. Now building on its momentum, there is a new commitment to develop Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the post 2015 agenda. This is a historic process — we are witnessing a shift in paradigm in the conceptualization of development, from seeing it mainly as economic growth, to conceptualizing it as healthy, human centered sustainable development. 

Civil society at the U.N. is contributing to this new way of thinking, drawing on grassroots movements and research from academic disciplines, in particular the social sciences. As a result sustainable development (SD) is conceptualized as three overlapping dimensions, environmental, economic and social sustainability, with human welfare and well-being at its heart. A society cannot be sustainable unless it has incorporated social justice, economic welfare, as well as environmental protection, into its guiding principles. This conceptualization of development is possibly the most important thing happening on the planet right now that will affect the future for a long time to come, and psychology has an integral role to play in this process.

Psychology Day at the U.N. — Every year psychology organizations at the U.N. hold an event to educate U.N. audiences about applications and advances in psychology. The theme of this year's event was "Psychological Contributions to Sustainable Development: Challenges and Solutions for the Global Agenda." The topic of sustainable development was chosen given its urgency in today’s world, and because in the past year the U.N. General Assembly Open Working Group (OWG) of member states has been negotiating the formulation of the new framework for the post-2015 agenda with input from civil society. It is very important for psychology to make its contribution to this agenda, and to that end a psychology coalition at the U.N. has been doing major advocacy work with member states to bring mental health (MH) and well-being (WB) into their conceptualization of the SDGs. In tandem with this initiative, Psychology Day’s format was designed to appeal to missions and feed into the ongoing OWG process.

Left: Rashmi Jaipal, PhD speaking at Psychology Day at the UN. Right: The Seventh Annual Psychology Day at the United Nations focused on Psychology’s Contributions to Sustainable Development: Challenges and Solutions for the Global Agenda.

Left: Rashmi Jaipal, PhD, speaking at Psychology Day at the U.N. Right: The Seventh Annual Psychology Day at the United Nations focused on "Psychology’s Contributions to Sustainable Development: Challenges and Solutions for the Global Agenda."

How psychology can contribute to sustainable development is a relatively recent topic. One way in which psychology is relevant, is its application to repair some of the fall-out of unsustainable development e.g, disaster relief and psychological resilience building in the wake of natural disasters brought about by man-made climate change, or conflict reduction through nonviolent communication, trauma interventions and peace building in the wake of conflicts between ethnic groups or over extraction of resources.   

Another significant way psychology can be relevant is as an indicator of unsustainable development. Health is at the center of sustainable development and a society is unsustainable if its economic and social systems and institutions are compromising mental as well as physical health.

A decrease in well-being, such as rising rates of stress related disorders, depression and suicide, dementias, chronic insomnia, attention deficit and short term memory problems, all point to unhealthy and in the long term, unsustainable aspects of the environment, especially for youth. 

The concept of well-being was first discussed by the Bhutan Gross National Happiness initiative which referred to subjective well-being as central to sustainable development (Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2014). It pointed to the social and economic pillars of sustainable development, the social and economic environment we grow up in, which influences our well-being. Using psychology as an indicator reveals aspects of developed societies that are unsustainable in the long run, and suggests what pathways developing countries need to avoid when attempting to build societies based on human health and well-being.

This is extremely important as the SDGs are seen as applying more to developing countries that have to catch up in terms of their economic growth and productivity. However through the lens of psychology, the pitfalls and unsustainable aspects of materialistic, consumer driven, developed economies can be brought to light through problems in mental health and well-being. If a socioeconomic environment leads to a decrease in well-being, it is an indication that it needs to be changed through social policy legislation and economic reforms. Thus psychology can also be relevant to sustainable development by helping to shape social policies that foster mental health and well-being in both developed and developing countries.

These considerations informed the focus of Psychology Day on informing U.N. delegates about an emerging trend in public administration, the use of behavioral science and industrial-organizational psychology, the science of work and human resource development, to design public policy. Psychology is stereotypically seen as being about mental health. Little is known by the general public about other branches of psychology such as behavioral science and how its use can encourage better choices and decision making in line with sustainable development. 

This insight, also reflected in the new “behavioral economics,” is relevant to economists and public policy makers at the U.N., as it challenges the myth of the “rational man” hypothesis as a driver of the market place, and points to the ways people actually make decisions which are often nonrational. It also provides insights about how the environment and context can help provide conditions for better choices. It is becoming increasingly evident that governments can successfully use behavioral science to create policies and implement programs geared towards sustainable development. This is useful information about a generally lesser known branch of applied psychology, and of great interest for delegations at the U.N. working on the SDGs, who can also share this information with their own governments.

The keynote speaker, a senior policy adviser at the White House, spoke about how behavioral science is being applied to improve development strategies around the world, and how her team at the White House is using it to streamline government policy making and improve efficiency of implementation. The research showed how its application can have a ripple effect where small changes in policy design based on behavioral science principles can lead to larger outcomes for sustainable development. The panel that followed fostered a discussion among psychologists and U.N. delegates of how psychological research regarding climate change and human resource development can influence the current open working group process. 

The feedback received from the target audience of U.N. delegates indicated great interest in this topic. Some wanted more information on the presentations to help them formulate their statements on SDGs for the next open working group session. A U.N. economist found it very relevant for economic policy development and wanted to further the discussion. And psychologists attending were interested to learn about this emerging trend in the application of psychology to good governance.

In many ways this was a groundbreaking session. As the deputy permanent representative of El Salvador on the panel stated, up to now in U.N. debates, psychology has not been seriously considered as relevant to sustainable development. But with programs like this that introduce psychology’s applications in a new way, there is a dawning realization of the very significant and wide ranging role psychology has to play. The coming together of U.N. delegates and psychologists to seriously consider the contributions of psychology to the SDGs is unprecedented, and is having an immediate effect on the open working group debates by complementing the advocacy initiative of the psychology coalition.

Psychology is an evidence-based social science that has a very broad scope. Since it has much to contribute in many areas it is time it was pressed into service. This is a call to recognize the value of psychology, not just as a means to heal the individual, but also to help build sustainable societies and a sustainable future.


Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). (2013). An action agenda for sustainable development: Report to the UN Secretary-General.

About the Author

Rashmi Jaipal, PhD, is a cross-cultural psychologist with the Center for Cultures and Communication at Bloomfield College, an NGO representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for the American Psychological Association and was cochair of the Planning Committee for the 7th Annual Psychology Day at the United Nations.