Human beings strive to be happy. Indeed, many philosophers believe the desire for happiness is what drives most of what we do, whether that’s engaging in pleasurable activities, connecting to other people, or pursuing achievement.
But could the search for personal happiness be a problem when it comes to building a sustainable world? The idea doesn’t seem far-fetched. After all, sustainability means meeting our current needs for a good life without taking away from future generations, and focusing on our own pleasure in the present could have environmental costs in the future. For example, finding bliss in driving a gas-guzzling SUV could contribute to pollution, and finding success in selling products that need to be constantly replaced could create waste.
Yet findings from a new study suggest happiness is not detrimental to sustainability. In fact, they may go hand in hand.
Researchers used surveys from 152 countries to see how happiness was related to sustainability goals and behaviors. To measure happiness, they drew from the World Happiness Report and the World Database of Happiness, both of which provide happiness scores for different countries based on citizen reports on how good they think their life is or how satisfied they are with their life.
The researchers also looked at how much these countries consumed, how much they were reaching sustainability goals (as set out by the United Nations), and how much they recycled. Then, they looked at the relationship between happiness, consumption, sustainability, and recycling.
First, they found that happier countries consumed more, in general, than less happy countries—not necessarily a good sign for sustainability. But, even though they consumed more, happier countries also were better at reaching sustainability goals and recycling.
“In happier countries, people enjoy their lives and consume things, but they consume in a more responsible way,” says lead researcher Yomna Sameer. “It’s not an either/or. Happiness can go hand in hand with sustainability.”
To strengthen these findings, Sameer and her colleagues did a second analysis, dividing countries into high and low happiness categories and controlling for other factors that could skew their results—for example, wealth per capita, democratic or governmental corruption, general social trust, and more. Then, they reanalyzed the relationship between happiness and sustainability.
Again, happier countries met sustainability goals more and recycled more than unhappy countries, even when considering these social and political factors.
“We wanted to make sure that this relationship was not a random thing—that the relationship we believe is happening is really happening,” she says. “And we still found that the happier the country is, the more sustainable and responsible it is.”
This led Sameer to wonder why happier people would act in more sustainable ways. Perhaps happier people feel more grateful for their life and want to take care of what enriches it—their environment and the society around them. Or maybe when people are more depressed (and less happy), they’re more inwardly focused or just don’t have the energy to recycle and do other environmentally sustaining activities.
She doesn’t have the data to explain this connection, suggesting the need for more research. Plus, this is only one study, and it can’t show for sure that happiness leads to sustainability and not the other way around, she says. But, since a country’s level of happiness seems to be tied to other positive outcomes (like more social justice, better-managed commons, and stronger community ties), it’s possible it could also promote sustainability.
The most important thing, says Sameer, is that happiness doesn’t have to be a barrier to sustainability, and this is a counterintuitive finding that people should know about. Otherwise, governments and other messengers may say that sacrificing one’s happiness is necessary to create a more sustainable world, and that could be counterproductive to persuading people to take care of the environment.
“Happy people are not selfish. They don’t only care about their own happiness and refuse to care about others or the environment,” she says. “The more awareness we have about this, the more governments and companies can start talking about sustainability from that perspective.”