Seed-funding for research on sustainability and happiness

Photo of a climate protest with positive banners
Photo: Callum Shaw / Unsplash

Dr. Laura A. Weiss, Assistant Professor at the Self-Regulation Lab, and Dr. Tina Venema, Assistant Professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, will collaborate on the project ‘Saving the climate and being happy – Can we have it all?’. They were awarded Pathways to Sustainability seed funding.

Climate change is one of the most important problems humanity faces. It has become clear that human behaviours add significantly to global warming. In particular, behaviours that some see as the hallmarks of welfare are detrimental to the environment, such as eating meat every day or flying to distant holiday destinations. At first glance, this seems to indicate that sustainable behaviours may negatively impact people's welfare. While some studies have indeed found that a smaller ecological footprint is correlated with lower subjective well-being, other studies have shown that well-being and life satisfaction are positively correlated with engagement in pro-environmental behaviours.

Hope and fear

The key to explaining these contradicting findings might be in how climate change communications tries to persuade people to change their behaviour. Currently, a commonly used way to persuade people to act more sustainably is to emphasize the risks and dangers of climate change if people will not change their behaviour. For example, forecasts of future climate catastrophes are used, such as floods or dry spells, to emphasize the gravity. These ‘doom messages’ are used in official communications (e.g., governments and NGOs), as well as in (social) media.

The vast literature on what is referred to as ‘fear appeals’ has shown that they can only be effective in changing people's behaviour when combined with a solution to avoid the detrimental outcome. Yet even if this is the case, these behaviour changes are often reversed as soon as the fear has subsided, leaving a negative association with the source of the message. This could lead people to experience negative emotions as soon as they read about the climate or sustainable behaviour at a later occasion. In time, this might cause them to avoid climate change communication altogether.

A solution could be to use constructive hope messages. Initial studies have found this to be a promising motivator for engagement with pro-environmental behaviours. But will the effects of hope be just as fleeting as fear, or will hopeful messages start a positive spiral by improving well-being, which in turns motivate long-term sustainable behaviour? To answer this, Weiss and Venema propose to test if hope messages are more effective than doom messages in conveying the information and motivating behaviour change, while also being better for people’s well-being.

Understanding the framing of climate communication

In collaboration with the foundation Milieu Centraal, which provides consumers with advice about sustainability, they will examine if the positive framing of climate communication plays a role in the relation between sustainable behaviour and well-being in the Dutch population. In a representative Dutch sample collected via the survey platform Flycatcher, they will test over several weeks in three waves:

  1. If and how well-being is related to engagement with sustainable behaviour
  2. The direct effect of three types of communication (fear-based, hope-based and neutral) on mood, intention to act upon the promoted sustainable behaviour, memory, and attitude towards the communicator.

“This research could help us to find ways to motivate people in the long term to act sustainably while taking their happiness into account,” say Weiss and Venema.