Saving the Planet Makes you Healthier
When many people think about taking action to reduce climate change and save the planet, they expect only sacrifice. Drive less. Eat less meat. Travel less. Buy less. It’s true that conservation entails changes. The really big benefit, though, is that making small shifts will improve your health, your wellbeing and the planet.
Taking Action Improves Well-Being
The concept that taking environmentally friendly actions improves health and wellbeing has been around for a long time. Until recently, though, researchers found the connection to be tenuous at best. When a team led by University of Exeter senior lecturer Rebecca Lovell looked at dozens of studies over the past several decades, for example, they found little quantitative evidence connecting environmental enhancement and conservation activities with health and wellbeing. The only real link was that participants thought their activities contributed to better health and wellbeing.
More recent research has, however, shown a tangible connection between conservation activities and health. A study led by University of Groningen researcher Stephanie Zawadzki, for instance, found a positive relationship between pro-environmental behaviour and wellbeing. The connection was especially strong for pro-environmental behaviour which reflects meaning, such as sustainable purchase decisions. People feel good about themselves when they act pro-environmentally, she said. The more clearly actions are linked with personal meaning, the stronger the relationship between pro-environmental behaviour and wellbeing is likely to be.
Cardiff University senior research fellow Stuart Capstick similarly found in a study of thousands of people in seven countries around the globe that as their commitment to environmentally friendly actions increased, so too did their wellbeing. The connection between green behaviour and wellbeing was as pronounced for those with lower incomes as for those with higher incomes and regardless of how altruistic or materialistic people considered themselves to be, or whether or not they were avowed “tree huggers.” Actions such as reducing food waste, buying greener products, donating money or getting involved in conservation work made the difference.
Small Changes have a Big Impact
To improve your wellbeing, then, you can consider taking environmentally friendly actions or volunteering to support conservation. While some steps may involve larger lifestyle changes, others are smaller. Starting by making just one change is fine. And researchers have developed apps or virtual workshops to show what you can do.
The first step, researchers at Leeds University suggest, is not just a change in our behaviour or what we buy. Instead, it’s a change in mindset, the things we aspire to, what we prioritise and what we consider valuable. Once those less tangible shifts happen, changes in behaviour can happen too. The researchers developed the Jump campaign and ask people to make six “shifts.” Perhaps the easiest one to start with is a “system” change such as using green energy, insulating your home or changing your pension supplier. You can then move on to changes such as eating a plant-based diet, buying only three pieces of clothing per year, keeping electrical devices for seven years, taking only one short flight every three years and keeping your vehicle for longer.
University of British Columbia professor Elizabeth Dunn, who studies happiness, collaborated with psychology associate professor Jiaying Zhao to do research on the connection between happiness and climate change. They found that “many of our carbon-sucking behaviours are not necessarily great for wellbeing,” she told Atmos. They set up Happy Climate, a free virtual workshop, to help groups identify behavioural changes to reduce their carbon footprint and increase their happiness.
One step that will have a tremendous impact is shifting to a plant-based diet. Changing from meat and dairy to plant-based foods has a high potential for reducing carbon footprints and mitigating climate change as well as improving human health, according to the Climate Change 2022 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Research shows that meat and dairy products fuel the climate crisis, while plant-based diets of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans help protect the planet. Plant-based diets may lower your body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. If shifting to a plant-based diet is difficult, you could start with “meatless Mondays” and then gradually add on more plant-based meals.
Another change that can improve health is using different types of transportation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said decisions that we make about our transport can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also our risk of disease. The WHO suggests cycling, walking or using public transport.
Getting out into nature can make a big difference too. The American Public Health Association said people enjoy higher levels of health and well-being when they have nature nearby in parks, gardens, greenways and other places. Access to nature has been related to lower mortality, less illness, restoration from stress and greater wellbeing. Combining climate-friendly activities such as planting trees with getting into nature can compound the positive impact.
While lifestyle changes such as meditating or exercising can improve your health, they only affect you. By taking environmentally friendly actions and engaging in conservation activities, you can get the multiple benefits of better health, greater wellbeing and saving the planet.