The Secret to Happiness Might Be the Air We Breathe

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The Secret to Happiness Might Be the Air We Breathe

By Fiona Zublin


Air pollution is far from just a health issue.

By Fiona Zublin

As Europe locked down to fight the coronavirus pandemic, trains stopped running, people stopped driving and coal-fired power stations went off-line. The drop in air pollution is estimated to have saved 11,000 lives in Europe alone, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Dirty air’s effects on physical well-being are known. But according to a new report by the Denmark-based Happiness Research Institute, it’s also eating away at our personal happiness.

Residents of more than 20 European cities are thought to be losing at least 5 percent of their well-being to air pollution.

The report measures WALYs — well-being-adjusted life years — to quantify happiness. “By making the cost of air pollution comparable to more tangible problems such as diabetes or unemployment,” says Michael Birkjær, one of the study’s lead authors, the report shows “how to cost-efficiently create better lives for the many.”

The happiness has a price tag too — the research found that compensating a family in Krakow, the worst-affected city on the chart, for lost well-being, would take about $862 per year. Studies on China and the U.S. have reached similar conclusions.

Vector illustration with simplified map of all European states (countries) with  european regions. Blue silhouettes, white outline and background

Source Getty

Pollution’s effects on happiness also mirror those caused by ill health. “Our analysis shows that if you live in Paris, you lose as much well-being due to air pollution as you would lose to having arthritis,” Birkjaer says.

Of course, it’s impossible to measure whether the recent drop in pollution is affecting well-being amid a pandemic that’s spreading devastation. And pollution levels are likely to rise again once industries and travel resume, experts say.

But some cities are changing anyway. Emerging from lockdowns, cities like Paris and Milan are designating formerly car-choked streets as pedestrian and bike zones, potentially reducing the traffic pollution that’s been keeping citizens from living their best lives.