Contrary to popular belief, engaging in pro-environmental behaviours can enhance a person’s satisfaction with their life, according to new study.

SFU professors Michael Schmitt, Lara Aknin, and Jonn Axsen, with colleague Rachael Shwom from Rutgers University, recently published a study that looked at how green behaviour can improve psychological well-being. Their study suggests that helping the environment produces the same benefits associated with engaging in social behaviours that help other people.

The researchers conducted two large surveys, one in Canada, and one in the USA, that asked participants to report their life satisfaction and engagement in a range of pro-environmental behaviours. Their study examined a variety of eco-friendly behaviours, making the study more in-depth compared to previous research, according to Aknin.

Some examples of eco-friendly behaviours include reusing bags when shopping, setting the thermostat lower, taking shorter showers, and participating in environmental organizations.

“Most people think that engaging in environmentally friendly behaviour may be difficult or unpleasant. Challenging this belief, we find that people who engage in these behaviours are happier, suggesting that they may actually promote well-being,” said Aknin.

 The reason that many people assume that engaging in pro-environmental behaviour undermines their well-being is because of the costs affiliated with those behaviours, according to Schmitt.

“Most people think that engaging in environmentally friendly behaviour may be difficult or unpleasant.” – Lara Aknin, SFU professor

“We tend to focus on the effort, time, and money it might take to engage in pro-environmental behaviour, and think that we might better off spending those resources directly on oneself,” he said. “We tend to underestimate how good it feels to do something good for others, even when, or maybe especially when, we have to give something of ourselves.”

The researchers’ findings indicate that the costs of pro-environmental behaviors — in time, money, and effort — actually lead to the behaviours being more strongly related to life satisfaction.

“We found that some behaviours are more linked to life satisfaction than others. In particular, the more the behaviour had costs in terms of time, money, and effort, the more strongly that behaviour was linked to well-being.  This is likely [due] to the more costly acts being perceived as making a bigger contribution of one’s own resources to benefit the environment,” explained Schmitt.

Schmitt noted that “as long as people perceive a pro-environmental behaviour as contributing to the well-being of others, then doing that behaviour is likely to promote well-being.”

For the next phase of their research project, the researchers are conducting experimental studies that can determine whether engaging in eco-friendly behaviour has a causal effect on well-being. More specifically, they are looking to see when, why, and how engaging in environmentally friendly behaviour actually causes increases in happiness or well-being.

“There is an abundance of evidence that other kinds of helping behaviour has a causal effect on well-being, but in the environmental context, all the research thus far has been correlational,” concluded Schmitt.