A growing body of research suggests that, rather than posing a threat to individual well-being, adopting a more sustainable lifestyle represents a pathway to a more satisfied life. Numerous studies have found that people who purchase green products, who recycle, or who volunteer for green causes claim to be more satisfied with their lives than their less environmentally friendly counterparts.
In the most systematic exploration of this relationship to date, the social psychologist Michael Schmitt at Simon Fraser University in Canada and colleagues found that, of the 39 pro-environmental behaviors examined, 37 were positively linked to life satisfaction (the exceptions being the use of public transport or carpooling, and running the washer/dryer only when full).
Digging deeper, the authors of this 2018 paper found that the strongest positive relationships were between life satisfaction and those behaviors involving a cost in money, time, or effort. So, participating in local pro-environmental activities is far more predictive of life satisfaction than, say, turning off the tap while brushing your teeth (despite it being a more effortful undertaking). In a complementary vein, when the psychologist Stacey Ann Rich at La Trobe University in Melbourne and colleagues looked at people on the far end of the sustainable lifestyle scale, they found that “voluntary simplifiers”—or people who freely choose to live frugally—report higher life satisfaction than nonsimplifiers across several different studies. Far from suggesting that people lose out when they put significant effort into living a sustainable life, it seems that the more you put in, the more you stand to gain.
This is promising evidence, but the measure used—life satisfaction—can miss some of the potential nuances in play when people think (and feel) about their lives as they go about them. My own research at the London School of Economics addresses this issue by examining how pro-environmental behaviors relate to different types of well-being. In particular, I make a distinction between hedonic well-being, which relates to the emotions that people experience, and eudemonic well-being, which reflects their sense of purpose.
There are good reasons to think that this distinction might matter. Some pro-environmental behaviors can boost people’s mood: Imagine cycling to work rather than driving through central London traffic, for example. Other behaviors that are typically carried out on autopilot, such as recycling, might not be expected to have any impact at all. Still others might cause people to experience feelings of stress, as anyone who has recently tried to have a short, cold shower will attest.
Contrast this with how we might expect pro-environmental behavior to relate to people’s sense of purpose. The environmental psychologist Tim Kasser—an expert on materialism and well-being, and now emeritus professor at Knox College in Illinois—has argued that pro-environmental behavior can contribute to people’s needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence—all of them key drivers of eudemonic well-being. More directly, to the extent that people perceive engagement in a wide range of pro-environmental behaviors as “doing the right thing,” we might expect them all to contribute to people’s sense of purpose.
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