More and more studies are showing that sustainable, eco-friendly behaviours are closely linked with happiness and satisfaction with life. Contrary to the widely-held belief that environmental sustainability comes at the price of individual freedom, wealth and happiness, it has been shown that people who adopt behaviours that promote environmental conservation are much more likely to report higher levels of satisfaction with life and increased sense of community.

“Sustainable happiness” was a term coined by Catherine O’Brien, professor at Cape Breton University, Canada. The phrase refers to happiness that contributes to individual, community and global wellbeing, without the exploitation of other people, the environment, or future generations.

Through millions of responses to surveys like the World Values Survey, the Gallup World Poll and the European Social Survey, it has been found over and over again that the happier people are those that recycle, reduce waste, and reduce their carbon footprint where they can. People who agree with the statement “it is important to care for the environment” were found to have an increase in happiness by 0.2, compared to those who strongly disagreed with the statement.

0.2 sounds pretty pathetic, right? Not so when you consider that this increase in happiness is the same as when increasing self-rated wealth from “low income” to “middle income”. Want to feel like you earn several thousand more per year? Recycle.

 “It is important to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves”- Zero Waste project participant, Denmark.

Consumer culture encourages the constant creation of waste, which is already known to have negative consequences for the environment. But this is also having psychological consequences at the individual and societal level whereby we are actually unhappier.

The Happiness Research Institute wants politicians to use these findings to create policies that benefit everyone.

“Working towards decoupling happiness and consumption has the potential to lead to happier and more sustainable communities” -Happiness Research Institute, “Sustainable Happiness” 2015.

The correlation between actions to reduce waste and an increase in happiness have been shown in the Zero Waste Project in Denmark, The Happiness Initiative Sustainable Seattle, and many more. Although correlation and causation do not mean the same thing, the groundwork for future studies has been laid.

“The evidence suggests that public policies promoting more sustainable lifestyles, like waste prevention, will foster a greener planet and improve quality of life”.

The Happiness Research Institute theorises as to some of the possibilities behind the correlation between happiness and sustainability:

  • Happier people are more likely to care about the environment and therefore engage in sustainable behaviours
  • Sustainable behaviours directly cause happiness
  • Sustainable behaviours cause an increase in feelings of civil society, trust and participation in community, thereby indirectly contributing to happiness.

These theories may be all wrong, or may work in combination. It could be that the added feelings of control and autonomy that are induced by taking charge of individual household waste production are the reasons for the increase in happiness, given that these feelings are strongly related to happiness, as shown by what the world’s happiest countries have in common and what makes employees happy at work.

Regardless of the reasons why, the bare fact is that happy people engage in sustainable behaviours.

What can I do to reduce my impact on the environment? What are sustainable behaviours?

  • If you don’t already have one, get a recycling bin and use it.
  • Compost your waste food.
  • Find out what your local authority classes as recyclable by checking their website or calling them to request the information.
  • Replace single-use plastic items with reusable versions – buy a reusable takeaway coffee cup, get reusable food wraps instead of plastic clingfilm or sandwich bags, take a refillable water bottle with you instead of buying plastic bottles out.
  • Sign a petition to stop supermarkets wrapping fruit and vegetables in plastic, and in the meantime, buy only loose vegetables or use paper bags.
  • Bring your own bags to the supermarket.
  • Get biodegradable binbags to replace the ones that never biodegrade.
  • Check out this website for more Zero-Waste ideas.

The possibilities are endless.

Check out Catherine O’Brien’s book Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being

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