This summer, while I was stuck in a cloud of wildfire smoke in Washington, my fears about living with climate change, usually a background hum, hit a new, higher pitch. I started spinning about what the future would look like and what I should—and might have to—do to exist in a rapidly warming world. Should I go cold turkey on travel? Stop buying anything? Will those attempts to reduce my carbon footprint make me miserable, and will they even be worth it? Will I still lose the things I love, like eating fruit in winter and breathing clean air in summer, no matter how much I sacrifice?
It turns out that my spiraling brain may have gone a bit too far, at least when it comes to the link between climate action and misery. A new study published in Social Indicators Research in April found that the happiest countries in the world are also the ones closest to meeting the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which map a more environmentally viable, equitable world for all. The targets aren’t just about land and water conservation and clean energy, but also food security and sustained inclusive economic growth. When they came up with the goals in 2015, after nearly two decades of hammering them out, the UN member states made clear that sustainability isn’t just a singular push toward carbon reduction or shrinking consumption. Environmental issues can’t be divorced from economic or social problems, and countrywide happiness is just one of the ways that shows up. To me, that feels like a powerful way to look at the future.
Environmental issues can’t be divorced from economic or social problems, and countrywide happiness is just one of the ways that shows up.
“We wanted to look at how happiness, and more specifically hedonism and living a full life, were not at odds with sustainability,” says lead author Yomna Sameer, a management professor at Abu Dhabi University.
To quantify the connections, Sameer and her colleagues looked at data from 152 countries. They overlaid each country’s progress toward meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals with its scores on the World Happiness Report (also compiled by the United Nations) and the World Database of Happiness (compiled by researchers at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands), which look at a wide range of quality-of-life factors. They found a direct, significant connection between a happy life and a climate-friendly life. “It’s really amazing how clear the graph was. The happier you are, the more sustainable you can be,” Sameer says.
These findings also counter the frequently held psychological and economic assumption—the exact one that was bringing me down—that to live sustainably you have to skimp, give up things you love, or settle for worse quality of life. “For years the whole idea of being hedonic has been looked at in a selfish way, but you can have pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort without being selfish or ruining the environment,” Sameer says. “It’s not an either-or anymore.”
Sameer and her co-authors dug into individual habits like recycling and consumption, as well as countrywide sustainability metrics like energy use. They found that happy places were often countries that consumed significantly but also eliminated waste, got their energy from sustainable sources, and minimized commutes. Culturally, they prioritized time off and access to nature. They worked for equity and equality so that those lifestyle values weren’t just available to the wealthiest or most privileged residents.
Italy was one example: residents value happiness factors like food and access to the sea, and the country is working to preserve those things through sustainable agriculture and marine conservation. Iceland was another, with extremely high happiness scores and an equally high rate of recycling—which Sameer’s analysis found was correlated with happiness in all the countries studied.
Sameer’s team isn’t the only group extrapolating the connections between quality of life and sustainability. A 2020 study from economists at Oxford and Columbia, which looked at links between sustainability and economic well-being, found similar results, especially when it came to long-term success. As countries became wealthier, happiness plateaued unless the countries made moves toward sustainability, like protecting ecosystems and addressing inequality. When places focused too exclusively on gross domestic product instead of quality of life, their happiness stagnated.
The United States is an example of this, which might partly explain why I feel scared about the future. Even though we’re among the wealthiest countries in the world, we’re in the middle of the pack when it comes to both happiness and environmental values. We are still consuming too much (U.S. citizens individually use about 16 metric tons of carbon a year, and the U.N. says it should be closer to three) in unsustainable ways, and it’s not making us feel good.
Sameer says that culturally in the States we work too hard and focus too much on individualism. She says we should aim to be more like the countries that scored the highest in her study, like Finland and Canada. “They work less, and have work-life balance,” she says. “The happiest countries are the ones that value leisure, not necessarily luxury.” Their governments prioritize things like education, renewable energy, food access, and public green spaces.
A big part of meeting the United Nations’ sustainability goals worldwide involves systemic action by government, corporations, and financial institutes. That doesn’t mean individuals are powerless. You can lobby your town or city government for more parks and better transit, and your state reps and Congress members for clean energy infrastructure. You can personally support the sustainable practices that bring you joy—such as helping build trails, eating local food, or spending more time on your bike—knowing that individual behavior affects systemic change.
Taking individual action can also bring meaning to our lives, which is part of happiness. Britt Wray, who studies the mental health impacts of climate change and writes a newsletter about climate grief called GenDread, advocates for something she calls meaning-focused coping. “By realistically acknowledging a threat and then looking for its silver linings that align with one’s beliefs, values, and goals, some optimism and purpose can almost always be found, even in the most terrible situations,” she writes.
I’m trying to take this to heart and remind myself that anything I can do for climate action will make me happier. I can spend money on things I believe in, like good local food, and be part of systemically making things better, not just passively avoiding them. I can work to make my local environment better so I can enjoy it. I can try to chill out and do less—which also means consuming less and spending less.
Living like that feels like a hazy fantasy sometimes, especially though the scrim of fire and flood we’re facing right now, and there’s some heavy privilege in even being able to have this discussion about personal happiness as it relates to sustainability. But I think there’s also something powerful about prioritizing a happy future for everyone, working toward it, and having the research to know that it can be a reality.