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How eco-anxiety is related to subjective well-being among young people?
Caused mainly by human activity, the ongoing climate change is resulting in an uptick in extreme-weather events, such as droughts and floods, extreme heat, and cold waves.
In several European countries, including Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany, the 2021 European floods, for example, have cost more than two hundred people’s lives and have met the local populations largely unprepared (Kreienkamp et al., 2021).
Next to the material damage, the affected populations have incurred psychological costs by this extreme weather event, as well as by climate change in general. In this context, one particular psycho-social consequence that affects young people in developed countries is eco-anxiety.
How exactly eco-anxiety is related to the subjective well-being of young people?
Researching how Eco-anxiety relates with Subjective Well-being
We defined eco-anxiety as the “anxiety people face from constantly being surrounded by the wicked and threatening problems associated with climate change” (Hayes et al., 2018). The term ‘eco-anxiety’ is sometimes used to include other negative emotions as well, such as worry, nervousness, fear, guilt, and sadness (Clayton & Karazsia, 2020). For our analysis, we did not use a direct measure of eco-anxiety but rather a question about the degree of concern for the environmental conditions of future generations.
We defined subjective well-being as the self-reported cognitive and emotional appraisal of one’s life (Diener et al., 2002). For a detailed explanation of the main facets of subjective well-being, see Forgeard et al. (2011).
For our analysis, we adopted two dimensions of subjective well-being that are well-established in the academic discussions on well-being: affective–hedonic well-being (here: ‘happiness’) and cognitive-evaluative well-being (here: ‘life satisfaction’).
The research on eco-anxiety and subjective well-being is so far largely unparalleled.
Findings in one of the world’s richest (and happiest) societies
We examined how young people’s eco-anxiety in Luxembourg was associated with their subjective well-being before, during, and after the severe flooding in the summer of 2021 and to what extend the relationship between eco-anxiety and subjective well-being changed depending on the physical proximity to the flooding.
Surveying a representative sample of young people in Luxembourg between 12 and 29 years of age, we found the following results:
- Eco-anxiety seems to exist among young people in Luxembourg.
- Eco-anxiety was differently related to two dimensions of subjective well-being of young people: being eco-anxious was positively related to young respondents’ happiness, but otherwise was not related to their general life satisfaction – either positively or negatively.
- Physical proximity to the 2021 European floods did not impact how eco-anxiety was related to young people’s subjective well-being (neither life satisfaction nor happiness).
The previous two findings may explain why most (young) individuals in developed countries are less likely to take strong action against climate change and are unwilling to adjust their daily conditions of comfort.
Researching young people’s eco-anxiety and subjective well-being in the context of Luxembourg is particularly relevant for the following reasons.
Being the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world and consistently ranked in the top10 happiest (Heliwell et al., 2022), Luxembourg represents an ‘extreme’ case in terms of socioeconomic development and well-being: on a global average, people (including the young) fare extremely well. At the same time, and besides Qatar, Luxembourg has one of the worst ecological footprints in the world (World Population Review, 2023).
Analysing young people’s eco-anxiety allows us to better understand how individuals and societies cope with climate change. Our research on eco-anxiety can contribute to developing effective strategies to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
The following section explains our main results in detail.
Eco-anxious youths were happier
Our results show that eco-anxiety is very positively related to happiness and not related at all to life satisfaction. Although eco-anxiety is associated with happiness, which we understand as a form of affective-hedonic well-being, eco-anxiety does not seem to influence life satisfaction, that is a deeper and more holistic-cognitive dimension of subjective well-being.
The fact that eco-anxiety is only related to young people’s happiness and in a positive way, suggests eco-anxiety to be a positive psycho-social construct that may confer some sense of (generational) identity and lifestyle for young people driven by the motivation to act in ways that are socially rewarded, rather than producing an overall negative psychological perception of climate change and human inaction.
Related studies on subjective well-being and notions of ‘green self-image’ and ‘green behaviour’ point in a similar direction (e.g. Welsh, Binder and Blankenberg, 2021).
Eco-anxiety did not affect young people’s overall life satisfaction
Nonetheless, the fact that eco-anxiety is only related to happiness and not life satisfaction may explain why most (young) individuals in developed countries remain less inclined to take strong actions against climate change beyond minor, discrete forms of activism such as attending occasional public demonstrations in favour of climate action or adopting some sustainable consumption habits.
One could argue that radical behavioural and lifestyle changes could only be expected if eco-anxiety was strongly associated with life satisfaction or with some other evaluative-cognitive dimensions of subjective well-being that encompass personal accomplishments or deep feelings of meaning and purpose in life.
Proximity to areas affected by floods had no impact on how eco-anxiety is related to subjective well-being
The flooding seems to have had no impact on how eco-anxiety is related to subjective well-being even if individuals were exposed very closely to them.
This is surprising given the small size of the country of analysis, Luxembourg, which is equivalent to nearby regions in European countries such as France, Germany, Italy, or Spain.
This evidence suggests that extreme weather events in highly developed regions or countries do not generally affect people even when they directly experience them. Hence, policy makers and regional/national legislators cannot expect individuals to adjust their behavioural and consumption patterns to the extent required to combat climate change more effectively.
Related studies (e.g., Connell et al., 1999; ElHaffar er al., 2020; Park & Lin, 2020) have shown that individuals recognise climate change as an issue of concern and want to appear committed to pro-environmental ideas and behaviours. However, they are unwilling to take on responsibilities for environmental care if this implies a need to change their daily conditions of comfort.
In the long run, today’s young people and the climate they live in will depend on incremental structural changes to the global architecture of climate policies to combat and mitigate the destruction of their lifeworld. In this regard, some policy recommendations that may help to increase the awareness about climate change effects among the youth and the Luxembourgish population in general could be:
- Promote bottom-up sustainable policies in both the public and private sectors by organizing national or international (virtual or physical) congresses where young people, policy makers, activists and civil society meet to exchange ideas and proposals and discuss new strategies (Andersen, 2015; Raducu et al., 2020; Schreurs, 2008)
- Launch online information campaigns on social media to inform young people about the emergence of climate change with robust scientific information and local and national actions to combat it (Anderson, 2017; Schäfer, 2012)
- Offer young people the opportunity, through coordinated public policies, to engage in different voluntary outdoor activities to make them feel that they are taking actual action against climate change (e.g., monthly collective tree planting in different areas of Luxembourg). This will also allow to develop a higher connection with nature (Ganzevoort and Van den Born, 2020; Guiney, and Oberhauser, 2009)
- Intensify explicit incentives to promote sustainable behaviours that can increase the sense of purpose and meaning in combating climate change for both individuals and private organisations (e.g., discounts for using certain products and services; increasing the quantity and quality of green spaces; increasing the number and quality of green spaces) (Shadrina et al., 2022; Young et al., 2010).
- Accelerate the expansion of public transport (e.g., new tram and train lines) There are regions where young people still rely on their parents to drive them everywhere. This will make it easier for young people to see the advantages of public transport and be less willing to use only private transport in the future (Beirão and Cabral, 2007; Nurdden et al., 2007)
- Increasing the aesthetics/beauty of urban parks. This will allow the youth to develop a closer relationship with nature and value it more (Hoyle, 2020; Tomotaka et al., 2021)
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