Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Climate-positive habits, like curtailing consumption, are often framed in a negative light. But there’s evidence to suggest that reducing our carbon emissions can make us happier. Dr. Elizabeth Dunn and Dr. Jiaying Zhao, founders of interactive workshop Happy Climate, break down why.
It was on her bike on her way into work that Dr. Elizabeth Dunn had a thought: can happiness research, her field of expertise at the University of British Columbia where she is a professor, shed light on the climate crisis? Happiness and climate change are, at first glance, two seemingly disparate fields. Even so, Dr. Dunn decided to run the idea by her colleague, Dr. Jiaying Zhao, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia.
“She told me that many approaches to climate change are largely framed in a negative light—that we need to curtail our consumption and sacrifice a bunch of things,” said Dr. Zhao. “A lot of the current initiatives are also inducing negative emotions like guilt and shame. And Liz said, Why can’t climate actions produce happiness? That’s what got me really interested in this idea.”
That’s when Dr. Dunn and Dr. Zhao set up Happy Climate, a free interactive workshop that helps groups of people identify behavioral changes that can reduce their carbon footprint and increase their happiness. As part of the workshop, Dr. Dunn and Dr. Zhao ask that participants watch a 15-minute video that outlines how our choices regarding commuting, flying, eating, and shopping can drastically minimize the amount of carbon emissions we emit. In the same vein, and for those who are able to pivot, a low-carbon lifestyle is also more likely to involve routines—like balanced eating or hybrid working—that are known to maximize our individual happiness levels. Participants are then asked to flesh out their own action plans using a premade template, and then share their goals with the wider group to help with accountability throughout the process.
Below, Atmos speaks with Dr. Dunn and Dr. Zhao about key happiness principles, how they intersect with the climate movement, and why self-restraint increases our capacity to feel good about what we’re doing.
For many people, the intersection of climate action and individual happiness is not one that’s super clear. Can you talk a bit about how these seemingly disparate topics are connected?
In order to address climate change, we’re going to need people to make substantial changes. We need to have an all hands on deck approach. People are going to have to make substantial behavioral changes to tackle climate change, which also creates an opportunity for people to change in ways that are good for their happiness. That’s because many of our carbon-sucking behaviors are not necessarily great for wellbeing.
So, how can people change their behaviors to, like you said, optimize their happiness and reduce their carbon emissions?
There’s research in my field of happiness to suggest that commuting ranks among the least happy times in people’s day. If you were just approaching this from a purely climate-oriented perspective, you might say, “Okay, well, take public transit.” Unfortunately, in terms of happiness, public transit doesn’t look so awesome either. By contrast, there’s evidence to show that biking is at least correlated with greater wellbeing. Of course, not everywhere in the world is set up for biking or walking, and then it might be a case of asking: “Could you shorten your commute?” That’s because longer commute times are associated with worse overall wellbeing. Others, who are able to, might want to try working from home a few days a week, something we now have the infrastructure to do.
The Happy Climate approach is different from a moralistic approach that only recognises the value in perfect carbon reduction. Instead, we encourage people to think: Where could I cut back in ways that would significantly reduce my carbon footprint but also maybe benefit my happiness?
“People are going to have to make substantial behavioral changes to tackle climate change, which also creates an opportunity for people to change in ways that are good for their happiness.”
There are a couple of principles of happiness we work with; one is social interactions. In other words, meeting people face to face tends to increase our happiness levels as opposed to, let’s say, remote communication. In terms of commuting, if you do have to drive into work, you could consider carpooling with friends to turn the necessary journey into a bonding experience as well. That can increase happiness. What we’re trying to do is find the sweet spot between actions that increase happiness—like social interactions or perhaps helping others—and actions that reduce carbon emissions.
Beyond commuting, Happy Climate also focuses on the ways in which different types of food have disproportionately detrimental impacts on the planet. You suggest that holding back and practicing self-discipline actually increases our capacity to feel good about what we’re doing. How might that research inform the process behind making mindful decisions?
The key happiness principle here is that we adapt to whatever we’ve got. After a while, whatever we get used to having no longer delivers the same kind of emotional punch that it would have initially. For me, that meant cutting down on meat. I also realized that I can substantially reduce my carbon footprint just by eating meat less often. So again, the happiness principle there is that, by not having the things that we like quite so often, we can draw our attention to them when we do have them. Again, it’s not about this idea of deep self-sacrifice. It’s about appreciation for what we do have.
Cutting back on these high carbon-consumption behaviors means we not only save carbon but also increase our enjoyment and appreciation for these things. I do the same with shopping—that includes clothing and technology. I will use my iPhone until it just literally shuts down. Having said that, when I do engage in these behaviors, like eating a steak, I will be so happy.
“Cutting back on these high carbon-consumption behaviors means we not only save carbon but also increase our enjoyment and appreciation for these things.”
I would also add that there is some evidence from longitudinal research that people who increase their fruit and vegetable consumption feel happier. One hypothesis for this is rooted in biological reasons in that we consume more vitamins that are good for our overall wellbeing. On that note, I do want to stress that much of the research on the low-carbon behaviors that promote happiness is either correlational or longitudinal. There is very little experimental research where people are, say, randomly assigned to have a vegetarian diet for a month or assigned to start biking to work. So, we do have to be careful about drawing strong causal conclusions.
Where we can be a little bit more confident is in terms of some of the broad happiness principles that Jiaying mentioned. It’s very well known at this point that we adapt to what we’ve got. And so anything you can do to sort of fight that natural tendency toward adaptation is potentially a useful strategy. For example, we know that time affluence really matters. So, making lifestyle changes in a way that protects your time is really great. And the wonderful thing about creating more time is that it often means actually reducing your carbon, right? When you’re not dashing all over for work or eating the same high-carbon meals, your carbon footprint goes down.
Finally, what suggestions do you have for people who want to make these changes but don’t necessarily know how to incorporate them into their lives, especially when the effects aren’t immediately felt?
That’s where the workshop comes in: we encourage you to do a deep dive into your own habits and behaviors and identify a specific action based on your lifestyle that you can take. It doesn’t have to be ambitious. It’s not like you have to give up driving or flying or steak at this point. In fact, it can be something as small as, “I’m going to start walking to work one day a week.” The problem with making it a habit is that you have to engage in that behavior long-term. You have to figure out how to cope with obstacles and challenges that will inevitably come up. In that case, having a backup plan can really help, so you don’t slide back to your old behavior. Liz, what do you think?
The other thing is we set this workshop up to be done in groups. That is intentional because we know that it’s easier to maintain behaviors when other people around you support them and are trying to change along with you. And so, if you were to do this workshop as a family, that means thinking about, “Okay, what changes can we as a family make, what are we up for? What is everyone willing to do?”
The happiness approach may also be helpful in bringing more people into the climate movement because, when we focus on emotions like guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, and climate grief, it just makes you go, “I can’t change everything so I’m not going to change anything.” With the approach we put forward via Happy Climate we really want people to ask themselves, “What can you change—even if it’s small?” Once a whole bunch of us begin making some changes, it starts to add up.