Known to be associated with harmful health effects, including heart disease and respiratory problems, air pollution now has been linked to unhappiness. According to a study published in the International Journal of Green Economics, higher levels of air pollution are correlated with greater unhappiness. In addition, the converse is true—countries with unhappier citizens have more air pollution.
The study, conducted by economists at Trent University, in Ontario, Canada, draws on air pollution data recorded from 14 European countries. Happiness in the same countries was determined by survey. Results show that citizens of countries with higher air pollution have lower measures of happiness. But the research didn’t look at the mechanism by which pollution influences happiness.
The paper summarizes existing research on the relationship between happiness and other factors, including economy. For example, studies have shown that economic growth in America in the decades following World War II was not associated with increased happiness. In general, economic research suggests that per capita income and growth rate don’t predict citizen happiness. To maximize happiness, governments need to focus beyond economic factors—leading to efforts to identify what most strongly influences happiness.
Prior studies have linked factors including physical health and social connections with happiness. One reason this new study is notable is that its results indicate that air pollution can cause unhappiness, strengthening the case for environmental regulation.
Air pollution already is known to have serious health consequences. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that outdoor air pollution causes roughly 1.3 million human deaths worldwide every year. WHO also reports that residents of cities with lower air pollution levels have better respiratory and cardiac health. Long-term exposure to air pollution increases the incidence of a range of conditions, including lung cancer, breathing disorders and cardiovascular disease. But despite the documented health hazards of air pollution, the Clean Air Act often is attacked by proponents of fossil fuel and other industries.
Most major air pollutants come from the same source as does climate-disrupting carbon dioxide—human use of fossil fuels. Five of the six air pollutants monitored by the EPA—carbon monoxide, particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide—are produced by the use of fossil fuels in power plants and motor vehicles. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will help reduce air pollution and improve human health, as well as address climate change. This new study suggests it also may make us happier.