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Sustainability makes people happier, research finds

Sustainable development makes people happier. Progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which cover objectives ranging from climate change adaptation to the eradication of poverty, has a positive correlation with wellbeing, according to new research from the University of Oxford.

Countries with a higher SDG Index score tend to do better in terms of subjective well-being, with Nordic countries topping both rankings, according to the research published in Nature Scientific Reports.

As countries become richer, the wellbeing of their citizens stagnates unless further economic growth is made more sustainable by, for example, addressing inequality, according to the research from Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, associate professor of economics at the Saïd Business School and Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford.

The research paper, which analyses data from the SDG Index together with subjective evaluations of wellbeing from the Gallup World Poll, is jointly authored with the leading development economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

The research also finds that, while long-term environmental measures have a positive impact on well-being, some short-term efforts towards sustainability may have a negative correlation.

Nations like Canada and the UK, where citizens use a lot of resources per person, are happier than India and China, which consume less per capita, the research finds.

This relationship is partly explained by economic development, as countries with higher GDPs tend to consume more, which is associated with higher living standards. However, researchers found that even when they accounted for economic development, low consumption per capita made people less happy.

The research also finds that people are gloomier in countries with lower greenhouse gas emissions, but this effect largely disappeared when researchers accounted for levels of economic development.

The researchers identify a number of countries which have both maintained wellbeing and perform well on sustainable consumption and emissions reduction.

Germany has invested heavily in renewable energy infrastructure, providing ‘green jobs’ while simultaneously reducing emissions. The combination of carbon taxes and incentives for renewable energy, combined with ambitious social policy, has allowed the Nordic countries to transition away from fossil fuels, without punishing low-income families with higher energy bills

Equally, Costa Rica is among the top countries for investment in new renewable power and fuels relative to GDP, and has committed to achieving carbon neutrality starting from 2021. It thus offers an alternative model for developing countries to avoid the Western carbon-intensive development path, the researchers say.

The lead author Dr De Neve said: “We find a strong correlation between achieving sustainable development and self-reported measures of well-being.”

People are willing to pay for observably cleaner air and there is evidence to suggest that being exposed to nature improves mental health, De Neve added.

“Well-being is correlated with the long-term outcomes of environmental policies, but there isn’t necessarily a positive correlation with the short-term efforts required by such policies. We find that this is certainly the case for SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and this makes it even more challenging for policy-makers to address this particular sustainable development goal.”

Professor Jeffrey Sachs commented:

“The ultimate goal of politics is wellbeing, which the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia. Our study suggests that sustainable development is not only correlated with wellbeing, but apparently with increasing marginal returns. This is in distinction with income, which contributes to wellbeing with decreasing marginal returns. The holistic approach of sustainable development, combining economic, social and environmental objectives, account for the linkages with wellbeing, with the strength of the linkages depending on the national context.”

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