Do people living in environmentally-friendly households feel more content with life?

By Professor Gopal Netuveli, International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Health and Society

We live in an age where we are reminded of our environment every day of our lives. It was not always so. Once, the concern about the environment and the appreciation of nature were considered to follow only after the satisfaction of our material needs (the so-called post-materialist thesis). Since the early 1980s there has been a surge in the use of phrases like ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ in the millions of published books searched by Google.

At the same time there is an increasing interest in the impact of environment and environmental attitudes on health and wellbeing. There are two pathways through which this impact can be felt: a positive effect of nature on wellbeing and a negative effect of human activities on environment like pollution. In the American context, these paths have been called 'green' and 'brown' respectively. In Britain, we can trace the origins of the green environmentalism to the social historian, G M Trevelyan's The Calls and Claims of Natural Beauty, and of the brown to John Simpson's indictment of the Thames, 'contaminated by the outscourings of the metropolis', in the cholera epidemics.

Although researchers have studied the effect of environmentalism on human wellbeing, they did so looking at individuals without reference to the households in which they lived. Our research addressed the questions of whether environmentally friendly households influence the happiness and health of its members.

Our study used the first two waves of the Understanding Society study: the environmental exposure variables from the first wave and the health, and happiness outcomes from the second wave. If a household used renewable sources of energy like solar panels and wind turbines and practiced recycling properly and regularly it was designated as a green household. Similarly we measured individual environmentalism based on the individual’s opinions about environmental matters like climate change and the need to act on it.

People living in green households reported greater, statistically significant satisfaction with their lives. This effect was maintained even after adjusting for general variables like age, gender and education, and also after taking into account environmental beliefs of the person and those of other people in the household. We found similar results for self-rated health: people living in green households rated their health better, a result which was robust against adjustments with general variables as well as those for environmentalism.

Happy households

As expected, there was an inverse relationship between common mental disorders and living in a green household. Environmentalism of other members of the household had effects on happiness, self-rated health and common mental disorders equal to or more than the green household effects. Therefore living in green households and living with people concerned about the environment improved health and happiness.

We also had a paradoxical result: individuals' own environmentalism had no effect or had negative effect on health and happiness. We explored this under different conditions, in singleton households so as to rule out any effect of other members in the household and in multi-member household to test the role of the individual as self (influencing own outcomes) and other (influencing the outcomes of other members of the household). In all analyses the difference in the direction of association between green households and individual environmentalism remained the same.

There are competing explanations such as that the green households are actually reflecting neighbourhood social capital or that environmentalism is motivated through ‘biophilia’, which refers to the sense of wellbeing humans have when connected with nature. Whatever the explanation, the beneficial impacts of green households we have found suggest that policies that encourage green households should be prioritised and protected.