An even brighter look on pro-environmental behavior
On September 30, at 16.15, Leonie Venhoeven will defend her dissertation “A look on the bright side of an environmentally-friendly life. Whether and why acting environmentally-friendly can contribute to well-being” at the Aula of the Academy Building (Broerstraat 5, Groningen).
The relationship between pro-environmental behavior and well-being seems somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, environmentally-harmful behavior may often be more pleasurable than its environmentally-friendly counterpart. This sentiment may lead people to see pro-environmental behavior as “requiring personal sacrifice of the highest order” (De Young, 1990, p. 216), and may have led former U.S. president George H.W. Bush to assure voters “the American way of life is not up for negotiations” (prior to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro). On the other hand, a large supermarket chain sells their organic product line as “tasty food with a good feeling”. Moreover, empirical research indicates that pro-environmental behavior and well-being are positively related. Correlational studies show that environmentally-friendly consumption is linked to greater personal well-being (Brown & Kasser, 2005), higher overall life-satisfaction (Xiao & Li, 2011), and more happiness (Kasser & Sheldon, 2002). In other words, opposed to being less pleasurable, pro-environmental behavior may also have positive consequences for one’s personal well-being. In my dissertation, I studied this bright side in more detail.
Pleasure versus meaning
To explain why pro-environmental behavior in itself can contribute to or detract from well-being, we distinguish between the so-called hedonic (i.e., pleasure) and the eudaimonic (i.e., meaning) route towards well-being (Venhoeven, Bolderdijk, & Steg, 2013). Pleasure and meaning may be linked to pro-environmental behavior to differing degrees. Pleasure, on the one hand, may only be associated with specific pro-environmental behaviors under specific circumstances. While cycling on a warm spring day for instance may be experienced as very pleasurable, taking a shorter shower in winter most probably is not. In fact, it may be the latter group of behaviors that leads people to think acting pro-environmentally equates with sacrificing well-being.
Meaning, on the other hand, may be a more central characteristic of pro-environmental behavior. As acting pro-environmentally benefits the quality of nature and the well-being of other people, many people view it as moral and thereby meaningful behavior (Thøgersen, 1996). So, while characteristics of specific pro-environmental behaviors may bring either pleasure or displeasure, pro-environmental behavior in general may bring meaning.
The effect of meaning
So, how does pro-environmental behavior increase well-being? First of all, we found that pro-environmental behavior is both explicitly and implicitly associated with positive emotions. In other words, people consciously anticipate to feel positive emotions after acting pro-environmentally, and also on an unconscious level, they associate this type of behavior more strongly with positive than with negative emotions. This emotional association can be explained by the meaning people address to pro-environmental behavior. We found that people see behavior as more meaningful when they believe it benefits the environment to a greater extent. Moreover, the more meaningful people perceive this behavior to be, the better they feel about acting pro-environmentally.
“People see behavior as more meaningful when they believe it benefits the environment.”
If meaning plays a role in explaining why pro-environmental behavior feels good, the next question that arises is: why does meaning have this effect? The mechanism we focused on in my dissertation is that engagement in meaningful behavior can show something positive about who you are. One of the pillars on which people base their self-image, is their own behavior. As Bem (1972) proposes “individuals come to ‘know’ their own attitudes, emotions, and other internal states partially by observing their own overt behavior” (p. 2). If pro-environmental behavior is perceived to be meaningful behavior, acting this way may boost your self-image, thereby eliciting positive emotions. That is precisely what we found.
“Because pro-environmental behavior is perceived as meaningful, acting this way boosts your self-image and elicits positive emotions. Especially when you engage in this behavior voluntarily.”
Additionally, whether behavior is caused by situational constraints (e.g., time pressure) or personal choice may influence how people interpret their behavior. When people engage in behavior voluntarily, they are more likely to see this behavior as revealing something about who they are. Not only to others, but also to themselves (Bodner & Prelec, 2003; Van der Werff, Steg, & Keizer, 2014). Importantly, we found that people especially see themselves as environmentally-friendly and a better person when their engagement in pro-environmental behavior was voluntary.
Although engagement in pro-environmental behavior may at times be costly, uncomfortable and frustrating, my dissertation shows that acting this way may also have positive consequences for one’s personal well-being. Pro-environmental behavior can be seen as meaningful, and thereby feel good to engage in. Furthermore, because it can be seen as meaningful, engaging in pro-environmental behavior may signal something positive about who you are – particularly when do so voluntarily. Cycling on a warm spring day and taking shorter showers may thus not only increase the well-being of our planet and of future generations, it may also increase your own.
“Cycling on a warm spring day and taking shorter showers may thus not only increase the well-being of our planet and of future generations, it may also increase your own”
Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 1-62). New York: Academic Press.
Bodner, R., & Prelec, D. (2003). Self-signaling and diagnostic utility in everyday decision making. In I. Brocas, & J. Carillo (Eds.), Collected essays in psychology and economics (pp. 105-126). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brown, K. W., & Kasser, T. (2005). Are psychological and ecological well-being compatible? The role of values, mindfulness, and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research, 74(2), 349-368. doi:10.1007/s11205-004-8207-8
De Young, R. (1990). Some psychological aspects of living lightly: Desired lifestyle patterns and conservation behavior. Journal of Environmental Systems, 20(3), 215-227.
Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2002). What makes for a merry Christmas? Journal of Happiness Studies, 3(4), 313-329. doi:10.1023/A:1021516410457
Thøgersen, J. (1996). Recycling and morality: A critical review of the literature. Environment and Behavior, 28(4), 536-558.
Van der Werff, E., Steg, L., & Keizer, K. (2014). Follow the signal: When past environmental actions signal who you are. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 273-282. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.07.004
Venhoeven, L. A., Bolderdijk, J. W., & Steg, L. (2013). Explaining the paradox: How pro-environmental behaviour can both thwart and foster well-being. Sustainability, 5, 1372-1386. doi:10.3390/su5041372
Xiao, J. J., & Li, H. (2011). Sustainable consumption and life satisfaction. Social Indicators Research, 104(2), 323-329.
Note: Layout of dissertation (incl. cover) by Saskia Elissen, artwork on cover by Creativeloads.com