Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern discusses the meaning of happiness and what matters most to her, in an extract from a newly released edition of 200 Women.

What really matters to you?

Empathy and kindness, because that's what can drive social change. I think these are not just sentiments, they are tools. They are what can motivate and drive you; certainly, they are two character traits that have motivated me throughout my political career. But having been raised in a small, rural community, I also value hard work, value being mindful of the community and people around you; and I value service.

At heart, New Zealanders are incredibly fair-minded people. And, if you break some of the social challenges we face down to individual people, New Zealanders feel a huge amount of empathy at that level. I've always viewed the world this way – rather than seeing political problems as these large-scale, statistical issues and as differences between people. I often view the individual in situations. There are so many issues we end up divided on, which, if you distilled them down to a simple concept, you would find we are in fact united on. Take the issue of child poverty; sometimes you'll hear arguments like, 'Well, this is an issue of parental responsibility, is it our role to be involved?' There's a perception that, at some point, someone has neglected their duty of care. But, actually, at the heart of the discussion is a child who – whatever perception you might have of them – is blameless, who is just a subject of their circumstances.

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So while I might argue back that you can't talk about parental blame as long as we have a low-wage economy in which people are working yet not earning enough to survive – at its heart, we're talking about the same child. If you take a view of kindness towards that child, then this starts to change the way you might think about solving the problem. You strip away some of the blame and get back to the simple values that every child should have a good start in life and that every child should have what they need to thrive.

What brings you happiness?

Having an opportunity to look out every day and see people who are finding problems and tackling them head-on, whether it be a social issue, a complex business problem or the need to innovate. I draw happiness from seeing people having the kind of attitude we value so much in New Zealand – being able to get stuck in and fix a problem ourselves – and I see the joy people get from resolving the issues they've tackled. Particularly when I see people unexpectedly responding to need around them, I am reminded that we haven't all forgotten that we are connected as a community. Imagine a country in which everyone is earning, learning, caring or volunteering. That's the kind of place that breeds happiness.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Selfishness upsets me, it really does, whether it be in a person's approach to the environment or to others. We're all dependent on one another in some way. Things don't tick along if we're not mindful of the world around us and are careless of the impact we have on others. So, both at a macro level and one-on-one, selfishness bothers me.

What would you change if you could?

I've talked at great length about all the things I'd like to change, but now I have both the privilege and challenge of actually being able to do some of those things. If I distill it down, there are things among this enormous programme of work that I'd like to walk away from politics feeling we had changed. These are finally having agreement that child poverty is something which shouldn't exist in a country like ours and that we all benefit if we rid ourselves of it. And climate change.

As a politician, when I think about what kind of place I want to leave the next generation, I'm very mindful of a sense of responsibility and care. What I love about New Zealand is that the idea of guardianship, which is obviously well-entrenched in Māoridom, is imbedded in us all – the idea that the environment is something we have a duty of care for on behalf of the next generation.

Which single word do you most identify with?

Kindness. Would it change the way we operate, would it change the decisions we make, if we inserted kindness into every decision we make? Kindness is that sense of being aware of the environment around you, the people around you and the community around you. This doesn't mean you can't be strong – you can be kind and strong. I like to challenge traditional views of political leadership. If you ask a group of people what their view of politicians' character traits are, they will probably come back with words like 'confident,' 'egotistical,' 'assertive' and, in some cases, 'self-interested.' There is a real perception around what it takes to be a political leader, but I hope that, over time, we can demonstrate that there are a whole range of traits different political actors can bring to their leadership. And that this doesn't mean that they are poor political leaders, rather, it means we're starting to have a political environment that's more reflective of people and society, and in which we have a range of different styles of leadership. So, I rebel against the notion that if you're strong, you are also assertive and ambitious with no regard for others.

• Text copyright © 2018 Blackwell and Ruth Limited blackwellandruth.com
Images copyright © 2018 Kieran E. Scott kieranscottphotography.com
200 Women (Updated and abridged), Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday, photos Kieran E. Scott, $49.99 RRP (distributed by Upstart Press)