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Will Being Green Make You Happier?

" ... the psychology of aspiration is not that of satisfaction. We do not always want what we like or like what we want"


A fairly recent area of academic psychological interest is Happiness. The field is variously known as Hedonics, Eudaimonics, and Positive Psychology (each term indicating a slightly different emphasis). Taking the word happiness in its broadest sense (to avoid getting bogged down in distinctions between Joy, Contentment, Fulfilment and the like), what does make us happier?

It seems that plenty of stuff can increase happiness for a short while but in many cases we adapt to it. If you get a new improved job with a new improved salary, the boost it gives you will not last because you get used to it and start wanting to climb to the next rung. This effect is encapsulated in the delightful phrase the hedonic treadmill. Similarly if our salary is lowered (within limits of course) we experience a dip but bounce back. But there are changes to which we do not adapt, or adapt only partially:

Basic threats to the safety of the individual - chronic cold, food shortage, or excessive environmental noise, are things that you would never get used to. Serious health problems can leave a lasting mark. The lack of autonomy in life is an enduring negative …

(Nettle 2005 p.85)

This distinction between adaptable and non-adaptable changes parallels the distinction between positional and non-positional goods. Income is positional: it isn't the absolute amount that matters, it is where that puts us in relation to others. (There is a famous finding that people - or at least the Harvard students who were asked this question - would prefer a world in which they earn $50,000 and the average income is $25,000 to a world in which they earn $100,000 but the average is $250,000). Consumer goods are likewise positional.

So, an improved environment (non-positional) will make me happier in a way that lasts, but an increase in personal wealth (positional) will not.

…the British Government is planning a major expansion of airports all over the country. However, hedonics predicts that people will soon adapt to the availability of cheap regional flights in Europe, and find them just as tiresome as the longer train journeys they replace. On the other hand, we will never adapt to the increased noise.

(Nettle 2005 p.88)

Can we 'sell' a green lifestyle on this basis?

I'm not sure how much help this is, but can't help feeling it is of some use. It's strategically useful that this type of argument has become respectable social science with empirical backing. On the other hand it could be politically dangerous to appear to be saying things like 'look, cheap flights won't make you happier you know'. Daniel Nettle takes his perspective from evolutionary psychology, from which viewpoint (a) there is no reason at all why our desires should make us happier but (b) those desires are going to be resistant to learning. Resistant, but not completely intractable, of course.

References:

Nettle, Daniel (2005). Happiness. The science behind your smile. Oxford University Press. Oxford

Layard, Richard (2005). Happiness. Lessons from a new science Penguin Books ltd. London

2005


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