An Ecology of Happiness

An Ecology of Happiness

by Eric Lambin, Teresa Lavender Fagan

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We know that our gas-guzzling cars are warming the planet, the pesticides and fertilizers from farms are turning rivers toxic, and the earth has run out of space for the mountains of unrecycled waste our daily consumption has left in its wake. We’ve heard copious accounts of our impact—as humans, as a society—on the natural world. But this is not a


We know that our gas-guzzling cars are warming the planet, the pesticides and fertilizers from farms are turning rivers toxic, and the earth has run out of space for the mountains of unrecycled waste our daily consumption has left in its wake. We’ve heard copious accounts of our impact—as humans, as a society—on the natural world. But this is not a one-sided relationship. Lost in these dire and scolding accounts has been the impact on us and our well-being. You sense it while walking on a sandy beach, or in a wild, woody forest, or when you catch sight of wildlife, or even while gardening in your backyard. Could it be that the natural environment is an essential part of our happiness? Yes, says Eric Lambin emphatically in An Ecology of Happiness. Using a very different strategy in addressing environmental concerns, he asks us to consider that there may be no better reason to value and protect the health of the planet than for our own personal well-being.

In this clever and wide-ranging work, Lambin draws on new scientific evidence in the fields of geography, political ecology, environmental psychology, urban studies, and disease ecology, among others, to answer such questions as: To what extent do we need nature for our well-being? How does environmental degradation affect our happiness? What can be done to protect the environment and increase our well-being at the same time? Drawing on case studies from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, Lambin makes a persuasive case for the strong link between healthy ecosystems and happy humans. 

Unique in its scope and evenhanded synthesis of research from many fields, An Ecology of Happiness offers a compelling human-centered argument that is impossible to overlook when we marvel at murmurations of starlings or seek out the most brilliant fall foliage: nature makes our steps a little lighter and our eyes a little brighter. What better reason to protect an ecosystem or save a species than for our own pleasure?

Editorial Reviews

Gretchen Daily
“Rare is the environmental book that asks us to take a look at the impact of nature on ourselves, rather than chastising our human impact on nature. Eric Lambin’s unique approach reminds us just how essential the natural world is to not just our well-being, but also our sense of happiness. And by appealing to our quintessential searches for pleasure­—from the food we eat to the warm summer air we breathe in­—An Ecology of Happiness inspires a strong urge for environmental stewardship.”


Ruth DeFries
“Anyone who has ever delighted in the earthy scent of a springtime stroll in the woods, a walk on the beach, or a starry gaze into the universe now has scholarly proof. Nature, not money or material possessions, makes us happy. Lambin's argument rings true to all who have suspected this basic truth.”

David Suzuki
“Human beings are endowed with the capacity of foresight, using our knowledge and experience to look ahead, recognize danger and opportunities, and deliberately choose a path into the future.  Humanity's 'success' is our achievement of unprecedented numbers, technological prowess and consumption that are now transforming the physical, chemical and biological properties of the biosphere on a geological scale. Far beyond satisfying our basic needs, we demand fulfillment of our endless desires, an impossible goal that is also biocidal.  But are we happier as a result of our current biocidal economic and social path?  What really matters in our lives?  These are the critical questions raised and answered inAn Ecology of Happiness, a vital book in addressing a global eco-crisis.”

American Scientist
"Eric Lambin draws on studies of how natural environments improve people’s psychological health to support his case. But his analysis goes much further, encompassing three major components: 'the subjective perception of a happy existence, health, and security.' Each of the book’s nine chapters offers a broad survey of research relevant to one of these factors, treating such subjects as microbes, war, urban planning and the relation between material wealth and happiness. He encourages readers to weigh not only their own happiness but also that of people living in areas with less economic privilege, who tend to bear the brunt of both environmental change and the unequal distribution of resources. "
Library Journal
Here Lambin (environmental earth systems science, Stanford Univ.; coauthor, The Middle Path: Avoiding Environmental Catastrophe) draws from many scientific fields to argue that people need access to the natural world to be happy. He aims to promote yet another reason to care about ecology. "Such a positive argument would essentially replace the alarmist discourse—of which many people are tired—thereby accelerating the transition toward sustainable development." He argues against "the rhetoric of fear," which, he says, encourages "denial among skeptics, cynicism among nihilists, despair among pessimists, and rejection by optimists." Throughout, Lambin shows both the positive results and negative consequences of contemporary Western lifestyles. In a manner of speaking, the book is an indirect and scientific defense of the Romantic poets who crooned over our wonderful planet, using subjectivity as much as reasoning to encourage us to love Earth. VERDICT This translation from the French is a fairly difficult read—Lambin's intended audience is academic. However, the material is excellent and worth the effort. Highly recommended.—John M. Kistler, Washington, PA

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University of Chicago Press
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Copyright © 2012 University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-46667-5

Chapter One


At the heart of what I call the ecology of happiness is this question: how does a close and daily contact with nature influence one's subjective perception of happiness? In other words, is human life enriched by experiences with the natural world? Can one live happily without an intimate relationship with it? Where does the satisfaction we derive from looking at natural settings come from? What makes us happy in our relationships with the animal and even the plant kingdom (an example: the pleasure of gardening)? Does the degradation of the environment irreparably lead to an impoverishment of the human experience and a lack of happiness? Can we live happily while being separated from the natural world by a screen of material artifacts?


The most recent studies on happiness, whether in economics, psychology, or sociology, suggest that beyond a threshold of basic material comfort, money does not buy happiness, nor can the possession of material goods increase or sustain the satisfaction one derives out of life. This conclusion has been reached in various studies, all rigorously reproduced in many cultural contexts, over various age groups and social classes. American sociologist Tim Kasser has shown that people whose value system is highly materialistic suffer from lesser personal well- being and from worse mental health than people who are not very materialistic. Regardless of the way in which materialistic values and well-being are measured, the same conclusion is reached: adopting materialistic values is both a symptom of a sense of insecurity and an inappropriate strategy for easing a sense of dissatisfaction. Materialism has negative consequences on emotional well- being and increases anxiety. The relentless pursuit of an accumulation of material goods leaves very little time to devote oneself to that which truly creates happiness—for example, family, friends, one's community, a truly gratifying job, and leisure activities that have a positive effect on one's physical and mental health. The satisfaction of materialistic desires also forces one to compromise personal freedom and value systems.

As regards individual countries, all changes that increase citizens' free choice—democratization, greater social tolerance of diverse lifestyles, and economic growth—are associated with an increase in happiness for most of the members of society, on the condition that the benefits of that development are widely shared within the society, and that increased opportunities are offered to everyone. The relationship over time between the happiness of individuals and their income is weak. Moreover, for poor countries, economic growth translates to an elevation in happiness for the population, but beyond a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of $12,000–$15,000 per year, the increase in happiness that accompanies economic growth is smaller, or even nonexistent in a few cases (in 2009, the United States' GDP was at $47,000 per capita, at purchasing power parity). For example, an increase of $100/ year in average income will have an impact on well-being that is twenty times higher in a very poor African country than in the United States. Beyond a certain threshold of prosperity, the noneconomic dimensions of human existence become preeminent in the definition of quality of life.

American economists Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics in 2002, and Richard A. Easterlin have both shown that when someone's income increases, his material aspirations increase just as rapidly. New aspirations (for a bigger car, a vacation home, a flat-screen TV) are created as soon as earlier desires have been satisfied. Over a period of close to forty years, the Gallup Poll asked the following question to a large sampling of Americans: what is the income needed by a family of four to live comfortably in your community? In response to this question, year after year most people calculated an amount that increased as rapidly as their true income. There is thus a "hedonic adaptation" to a person's new pecuniary circumstances: the level of well-being remained unchanged or increased only temporarily after new goods were acquired. This was less true for nonmaterialistic aspirations related to social, family, and cultural life, for which this adaptation was incomplete. Denmark is consistently one of the happiest countries in national surveys on happiness. Its secret seems to be in the modesty of its citizens' expectations. To be happy, is it enough to decrease one's desires rather than increase one's income?

Each person's level of satisfaction is also defined through social comparisons: the pleasure we derive from our material possessions depends in part on the amount of those same goods that others possess. Indeed, many studies have shown that a person's ranking on the income scale within a population, that is, his or her relative assets, affects his or her degree of satisfaction much more than assets measured in absolute terms. To be among the richest in one's reference group is more important than achieving a particular level of income. As a corollary, those who adopt a new reference group of people who are more affluent than they are discover they are less happy, even when their income is stable or increasing. If the entire population becomes richer at the same rate, the increase in each person's happiness is small. For example, the spectacular economic growth of the United States between 1946 and today has not been accompanied by an increase in the number of people who consider themselves very happy—the subjective happiness among American women even declined during that period. This fact disproves one of the fundamental postulates of most macroeconomic analyses; that is, that the average income of a country is a good measure of the well-being of its population, and that a rapid growth in the GDP should be a primary objective. When the income of people increases, they have a tendency to allocate a higher proportion of their time to activities that not only elicit little satisfaction but, on the contrary, increase stress and pressure: a demanding job, long daily commutes, pointless shopping, restricted leisure activities.

Thus, once a threshold of prosperity has been crossed, money and material goods contribute little to happiness. Generally, everything related to material possessions makes us less happy than that which derives from actual experiences. To engage in activities such as hiking in the woods or reading not only makes us happier, but also has a much smaller impact on the environment than an acquisition of material goods, whose production and use consume energy and materials and produce waste.

If we are made aware that engaging with nature truly makes us happier, then a virtuous cycle will be set in motion. Because the pursuit of a happy life will then be associated with a mode of consumption whose environmental impact will be diminished, which will preserve nature and will thus increase opportunities to increase one's happiness in contact with it. But has this hypothesis been verified?


Statistical data collected at the level of both countries and individuals have enabled us to determine whether people who say they are the happiest live in regions whose natural environment is the best preserved. In particular, there are a few statistical studies led by economists such as John M. Gowdy, Heinz Welsch, and their colleagues at the beginning of the 2000s. These studies are based on surveys pertaining to life satisfaction. Each year several countries conduct a survey over a large random sampling of citizens, asking a question such as: "On the whole, would you say you are: very happy; quite happy; not very happy; not at all happy?" Some surveys focus on feelings of happiness, whereas others look at life satisfaction, which introduces a slight nuance. A complementary question is often: "Are you satisfied in specific areas of your life: your job? Your financial situation? Your place of residence? Your health? Your leisure time? Your environment?" Respondents then have the choice between a limited number of responses, such as "not satisfied," "satisfied," "very satisfied." These surveys provide a subjective measurement of well-being, whose validity has been established by a large number of experimental studies in psychology and neurobiology. They have been conducted at regular intervals in several countries beginning in the late 1940s, and in a steadily increasing number of countries in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of the first statistical analyses to explore the relationship between the results of these surveys and environmental factors involved 20,000 German citizens in 2003. It showed that the overall satisfaction that individuals derived from their lives was explained, in order of importance, by satisfaction related to their financial situation, their health, and their job, with the environment being considered an unimportant factor. However, a significant portion of the variations in individuals' well-being was linked to single factors that were not measured in this study. In Holland, it was shown that people who live near an airport and endure the sound pollution from it are generally less satisfied with their lives than others. Another survey showed that living in the heart of a large city such as London also decreases well-being. A much more complete study conducted in Ireland, published at the end of 2008, showed that individual happiness is linked not only to socioeconomic and sociodemographic factors but also to environmental factors. As in other countries, the happiness of the Irish is associated with having a job, a good level of education, and a good income (up to a certain threshold of income, however), along with being in good health and not being divorced (women are generally happier than men in Ireland). Furthermore, happiness increases with factors involving the climate (high temperatures, mild winds, and a level of rainfall associated with green landscapes), when the density of the population is relatively high (which is reasonable in that rather sparsely populated country) and when one's home is a few kilometers from the sea. By contrast, living near a source of pollution or a busy highway not surprisingly decreases individual satisfaction significantly.

Other statistical analyses have been carried out on the national rather than the individual level. In these, each country is represented by the average response of its citizens to surveys on subjective satisfaction as well as by a series of socioeconomic and environmental factors. An analysis based on a few European countries determined that the level of air pollution relates significantly to differences in subjective perception of well- being, whether over different countries or over time: people who declared that they had a high level of well- being more frequently lived in countries where the air quality is better. Another study carried out over sixty- seven countries has shown that the climate—particularly where temperatures are highest or lowest—strongly influences perceptions of degrees of happiness, independently of factors such as per capita income, unemployment rate, political freedoms, life expectancy, or density of the population; subjective satisfaction increases in countries where the average temperature of the coldest months is higher (milder winters), and it decreases in countries where the average temperature of the hottest months is higher (torrid summers). It also decreases in climates characterized by several months with very low precipitation (long dry seasons). This implies that with global warming, people will become more satisfied with their climate conditions in high latitudes, where the richest countries are found, and less happy in equatorial and tropical regions, that is, in the regions of the world where most of the poorest countries are concentrated. The conclusions of this study, based on the projection of a simple statistical relationship, nevertheless reflect an environmental determinism that is, however, widely discredited by the facts: societies adapt their infrastructures and their ways of life to the climate, and the equatorial and tropical regions are filled with very happy people.

Other studies have analyzed the connection between well- being and the culturally connected attitudes of individuals vis-à-vis the environment. Based on a sampling of 9,000 British citizens, a detailed statistical analysis carried out in 2007 has shown that the more people are concerned with pollution and the degradation of the environment, the destruction of the ozone layer given as an example, the more they consider their well-being to be mediocre. On the other hand, the more they are involved with the living world and the preservation of biodiversity, the higher their perception of their well-being. The authors of this study interpreted these results in the following way: an expressed concern involving a negative aspect of the environment (its pollution) is associated with a decrease in a feeling of happiness, whereas a psychological relationship with living beings and other species, which reflects a positive view of the environment, is associated with an increase in a feeling of satisfaction. The analysis was carried out in such a way that the results indeed reflected the effect of a profound concern for the environment and not only the fact that some individuals endure a higher degree of pollution (which indeed decreases their well-being), whether they practice more leisure activities in nature (which makes them happier), or whether they have a rather optimistic or pessimistic psychological inclination toward life in general: through a series of well-conceived questionnaires, the effect of environmental attitudes was isolated from these other factors.

These statistical results thus show that there is indeed a relationship between happiness and the natural environment. They also suggest that policies aiming to resolve problems of pollution and to preserve biodiversity have a positive impact on human well-being.


On the scale of countries, another study, published in 2007 by Slovenian physicist Aleksander Zidanšek, found a positive correlation between the subjective satisfaction of a country's inhabitants regarding their lives and an indicator that measures the environmental performances of that country. This standard indicator was determined for each country from measurements such as water and air quality, the amount of protected zones, greenhouse gas emissions per inhabitant and per unit of GNP, and so forth. The countries in which the inhabitants are the happiest are also those that implement the most sustainable development policies with regard to the environment.

But is it sustainable development that makes people happy, or is it the happiness of people that causes them to develop a larger sense of responsibility toward nature and future generations, and thus causes them to decrease their environmental impact? Most likely, a bit of both.

To an even greater extent, two factors underlie both a happy society and a sustainable economy: a good educational system and a "postmaterialistic" value system, that is, values that are less focused on economic and physical security, and more concerned with issues of identity, the pursuit of quality of life, and access to information and knowledge. Surveys on satisfaction with life have shown that people who have a high level of education are in general happier than others. These same people are also more inclined to adopt sustainable modes of consumption. Moreover, people who have a nonmaterialistic value system are clearly happier on average than those for whom money and the possession of material goods are very important.

On the collective level, the transition from materialism toward postmaterialism is also the most important and most fundamental step for the successful passage toward sustainable development. The preservation of nature and an increase in happiness are thus two positive consequences of a profound transformation of society and individuals' value systems. Education, a rich value system, individual happiness, and sustainable development form a virtuous quartet. One of the implications of the correlation between happiness and sustainable development is that policies promoting values and behaviors associated with a smaller environmental impact for economic activity to the benefit of future generations will in addition make the current generation happier!


Excerpted from AN ECOLOGY OF Happiness by ERIC LAMBIN Copyright © 2012 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Eric Lambin is the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and a professor in the Earth and Life Institute at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He is the author of The Middle Path: Avoiding Environmental Catastrophe, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Teresa Lavender Fagan is a freelance translator living in Chicago. She has published over twenty translations, including J. M. G. Le Clézio’s The Mexican Dream.

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