Research has shown that happiness and pro-environmental behaviours can be mutually reinforcing – that is, the more of these actions people carry out, the better they feel – which results in more engagement in these behaviours. However, little is known about how the PEB-wellbeing relationship is affected by privilege, wealth, personal inclination and culture. This large-scale study investigated PEB and wellbeing in seven countries to consider whether these behaviours could be promoted in environmental and public-health policy.
There is a well-established premise that material wealth can bring greater happiness. Yet, as this study suggests, there comes a point after people’s basic needs are met that the reverse of this assumption can be true. People are becoming increasingly aware of the ecological consequences of consumer lifestyles, especially in high-income countries, and that this damage is happening without enhancing people’s wellbeing. In contrast, personal action which benefits the environment is linked to a positive association with wellbeing.
While an individual’s ecological footprint and wellbeing can be enhanced by PEB, it is not known how this relationship varies among people from different countries, cultures and socio-economic groups.
To elucidate this, the researchers explored firstly whether the PEB/wellbeing relationship is more significant for wealthier individuals and countries – i.e. those with the privilege or comfortable material circumstances to engage in green behaviours.
Secondly, the researchers investigated if a person’s motivation and personal values could influence the PEB/wellbeing link, with this link enhanced in those with fewer materialistic values and an intrinsic appreciation of societal equality. Finally, they aimed to test the hypothesis that wellbeing impacts of ‘private-sphere PEBs’ (such as product purchasing), would be stronger in individualistic western societies (e.g. UK and Denmark); whereas wellbeing related to ‘public-sphere PEBs’ (such as addressing environmental issues together with other people) would be stronger in collectivist cultures (e.g. China and Brazil).
The researchers performed an online survey in 2016 of 6969 people in Brazil, China, Denmark, India, Poland, South Africa and the UK, with about 1000 people per country. Participants were recruited to ensure a representative sample from each countries’ population with respect to age, gender and income. They analysed four public-sphere PEBs:
- getting involved in conservation work;
- donating money to an environmental campaign group;
- joining with neighbours and friends to address an environmental issue; and
- learning more about green issues.
They also analysed four private-sphere PEBs:
- buying products with less packaging;
- purchasing environmentally-friendly products;
- taking short showers or fewer baths; and
- avoiding food waste.
The researchers established three areas of investigation – privilege, values and motivation – and then applied a statistical analysis to the PEB-wellbeing relationship for each of these three areas.
The analysis supported the premise of a PEB-wellbeing link across countries, with this being most notable in India and China. Socially-orientated, rather than individual-level PEBs, were shown to be more important to wellbeing in collectivist cultures (China and Brazil). However, the data suggested that people’s income, values and motivations had no influence on the PEB-wellbeing relationship.
The study’s conclusions suggest that personal wellbeing gained by attaining meaning in life – through PEBs fulfilling psychological needs – is universal and independent of wealth. The researchers also suggest that the connection between wellbeing and PEB may provide insights into the design of policy instruments and drivers for environmental policy. They recommend that environmental policy should consider the potential of enhancing personal wellbeing as a co-benefit of PEB. As an example of how wellbeing can be integrated into environmental policy, they cite Wales’s ‘Wellbeing of future generations act’ which aligns behaviour change with improved mental health outcomes, and a national response to the climate emergency1.
- Welsh Government (2020). ‘The Future Generations Report 2020’. Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Available from: https://futuregenerations2020.wales/english [Accessed 31 October 2022].
Capstick, S., Nash, N., Whitemarsh, L., Poortinga, W., Haggar, P. and Brügger, A.l. (2022) The connection between subjective wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviour: Individual and cross-national characteristics in a seven-country study. Environmental Science and Policy, 133: 63–73.
To cite this article/service:
“Science for Environment Policy”: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by the Science Communication Unit, The University of the West of England, Bristol.
Notes on content:
The contents and views included in Science for Environment Policy are based on independent, peer reviewed research and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission. Please note that this article is a summary of only one study. Other studies may come to other conclusions.
- Publication date
- 9 November 2022
- Directorate-General for Environment