greener lifestyles linked to greater happiness – in rich and poor countries alike
The idea that being green means sacrificing and depriving yourself was embodied by The bashing of Boris Johnson of the “green monster that wears a shirt with hair, hugs trees and eats mung beans”. When the UK Prime Minister said this in 2020, the message was clear: a sustainable lifestyle can be dignified, but it represents a pretty dreary situation.
Look at the evidence, however, and you’ll find a different story. A wide range of research now shows that there is a positive relationship between environmentally responsible behavior and personal well-being. It may be because taking action to protect the environment makes us feel good by fulfilling basic psychological needslike the feeling that we are making a useful contribution to the world or that we are acting according to our own values and concerns.
The effect can also work the other way round: people in a positive state of mind are more likely to pay attention to the environment and act in ways that benefit more than themselves. As it becomes increasingly clear that a lifestyle focused on consuming more and more energy and natural resources is not very good for the planet or our own well-beingthere is the tantalizing prospect that people might instead live better in consume less.
A historical report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the shift away from fossil fuels and the high-emission lifestyles they enable must begin immediately. The good news is that there can be a lot more gains than losses in the process than people realize.
Good for you, good for the planet
In recently published research, myself and academic colleagues have examined the relationship between environmentally friendly action and subjective well-being (essentially, how happy a person is). We wanted to know if both greener and happier lives were only possible in the wealthiest countries or for the wealthiest people. Perhaps the possibility of feeling good about one’s ecological choices is a privilege that only certain people can access or afford.
This has not been clear to date. Although research on this subject has been conducted in several parts of the world, including China, Mexico and Great Britainthe majority of studies covered the lives of the inhabitants of the rich countries of the North.
Our study used survey data collected from almost 7,000 people in seven countries: Brazil, China, Denmark, India, Poland, South Africa and the United Kingdom. We found that no matter what country people lived in, as their commitment to environmentally friendly actions increased – for example, by reducing food waste, buying greener products, donating money to environmental campaigns or by getting involved in conservation work – their commitment to environmentally friendly actions was also increasing. subjective well-being. This effect held across the seven countries we studied – from Denmark, ranked 11th in the UN Human Development Indexto India, ranked 130th.
At the personal level, the link between ecological behavior and well-being was as strong for low-income people as it was for those in higher income brackets. We also found that regardless of how altruistic or materialistic people were, personal well-being increased by a similar degree due to more environmentally friendly behavior. Whether or not you are an avowed “green” seems to make little difference.
We found, however, that this link between behavior and well-being varies across cultures. In places generally considered to have a more collectivist social organization and worldview – in our study, Brazil and China – we found that environmentally beneficial actions that engaged multiple people at once, such as planting trees together had a particularly profound effect. effect on well-being. This effect was not seen in the more individualistic societies we examined, such as the UK and Denmark.
Emphasize the positives
Our findings suggest that there is a consistent relationship between eco-friendly action and personal well-being that spans different parts of the world and applies to a range of personal circumstances and perspectives. Just as a low-carbon diet also tends be healthierand cycling and walking allows us to exercise and reduce emissions, our study adds to the evidence that links eco-friendly behavior to a better quality of life.
To be clear, our research did not seek to compare ecological behaviors to other types of activities. The chicken and the egg question is also not fully answered by the study. It may be that higher well-being drives ecological behavior as much as the reverse is true. But either way, it’s fair to say that our results show that environmentally friendly people also tend to be happier.
This should be good news for activists and policy makers. Rather than assuming that doing the right thing for the environment has to be a burden, we should find ways to highlight the positive potential. Improving well-being and tackling the climate crisis can be both profitable and socially attractive. Initiatives and campaigns to promote environmentally responsible behavior would do well to highlight the value of action for people and the planet.
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