Why your happiness matters to the planet
Surveys and research link true happiness to a smaller footprint on the ecology.
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By definition, happiness is subjective. And yet, scientists find measurable differences in people who describe themselves as happy. They’re more productive at work. They learn more quickly. Strong social networks – a large predictor of happiness – also have health effects, researchers say.Skip to next paragraph
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One study found that belonging to clubs or societies cut in half members’ risk of dying during the following year. Another found that, when exposed to a cold virus, children with stronger social networks fell ill only one-quarter as often as those without.
For psychologists, social networks explain one of the seeming paradoxes of WVS findings: While relatively rich Denmark took the top spot, much less wealthy Puerto Rico and Colombia are second and third. In fact, relatively poor Latin American countries often score high on WVS rankings. This may underline the value of community, family, and strong social institutions to well-being.
Scientists say this need for community may be a result of humanity’s long evolution in groups. Living together conferred an advantage, they say. In the hunter-gatherer world, relatedness, autonomy, curiosity, and competence – the very things that psychologists find make people happy – “had payoffs that were pretty clear,” says Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. “Aspiring for a lot of material goods is actually unhappiness-producing,” he says. “People who value material good and wealth also are people who are treading more heavily on the earth – and not getting happier.”
High consumption fails to make us happy, and it comes at a cost. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2006 Living Planet Report, humanity’s ecological footprint now exceeds earth’s capacity to regenerate by about 25 percent.
Furthermore, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, North America accounts for 22 percent of this footprint. The US consumes twice what its land, air, and water can sustain. (By contrast, WWF calculates that Africa, with 13 percent of earth’s population, accounts for 7 percent of its footprint.) America’s outsize footprint results in part from its appetite for stuff – what psychologists now say is the wrong approach to lasting well-being.
“The pursuit of happiness can drive environmental degradation, but only a degraded type of happiness pursuit leads to that outcome,” says Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia, in an e-mail. “The standard western focus upon economic utility as the highest good (exemplified by the US) seems to encourage that kind of degraded pursuit.”
Worse, so-called “extrinsic” values (wealth, power, fame), as opposed to “intrinsic” values (adventure, engagement, meaning), seem to go hand-in-hand with more environmentally destructive behavior. Tim Kasser, an associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., has found that people who are more extrinsically oriented tend to ride bikes less, buy second-hand less, and recycle less. Nations with more individualistic and materialistic values also tend to be more ecologically destructive.