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Sustainable behavior makes people happy

19 July 2021

Sustainable living can feel a bit like a chore. For the environment and climate it is necessary, but all this waste separation, recycling, and energy saving require extra effort and costs for individuals. A new study however suggests that people who behave sustainably may also experience direct benefits from this: sustainable behavior could make them happier.

Sustainable behavior could make you happier.
Sustainable behavior could make you happier.


In a recently published meta-analysis by Stephanie Johnson Zawadzki, Thijs Bouman and Linda Steg, 78 previously conducted studies on sustainable behavior and subjective well-being were analyzed in order to better understand the relationship between the two. The researchers looked at different types of behaviour, such as purchasing behaviour, food choice, energy use, and waste separation. The meta-analysis shows a consistent positive relationship between the different types of sustainable behavior and well-being.

Warm glow

The study also shows that the relationship between sustainable behavior and well-being is stronger when people act consciously instead of automatically or out of habit. Researcher Stephanie Johnson Zawadzki: “Imagine you are in a grocery store and you have got two choices for dinner in your hands, one conventional, one sustainable. In a situation like this, when you consciously choose the more sustainable option, your decision feels meaningful and so it may be more likely to give you a warm glow - a pleasant feeling from the sense that you are doing the right thing. Over time, doing many of these types of behaviors might build a deeper sense of personal meaning, which would improve longer term happiness as well.”

This is not a new phenomenon. In ancient times, Aristotle already claimed that 'doing good' is an important source of happiness. Behaving in a sustainable way apparently is experienced today as 'doing good', argues researcher Thijs Bouman.

Emphasis on the positive

One of the main implications of the research is that sustainable behavior not only is costly or inconvenient but also leads to positive outcomes for individuals: it could make people feel good. Politicians and policymakers can use this information to their advantage by highlighting these positive aspects of sustainable behavior.


  • Zawadzki, SJ, Steg, L., & Bouman, T. (2020). Meta-analytic evidence for a robust and positive association between individuals' pro-environmental behaviors and their subjective wellbeing. Environmental Research Letters, 15, 123007. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abc4ae

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Last modified:26 July 2021 09.39 a.m.
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