Emotions Influence Environmental Well-Being

We know that emotions can influence individual well-being. Indeed, scientific progress has unveiled how human emotions—from exuberance to sorrow and even compassion—can optimize as well as hinder individual-level health outcomes. Across numerous studies we see that the intensity and flexibility of our emotions has robust effects on a wide range of cross-sectional and longitudinal well-being outcomes for the individual person. Furthermore, an optimal diversity of (both positive and negative) emotional experiences in everyday life promotes greater subjective well-being and decreased psychopathology symptoms. But are the effects of emotion on well-being specific to these types of individual-level outcomes?

Recent scientific news suggests the answer is no: Emotions (also) influence environmental well-being outcomes. These recent discoveries highlight that psychological processes, including our own emotional states, can play an important but previously understudied role in addressing pressing environmental issues. For example, exposure to scenes of environmental destruction, but not pristine landscapes, engages distinct neural regions (e.g., anterior insula) associated with anticipating negative emotions that, in turn, predicted individuals’ donations to protect national parks. Thus, negative rather than positive emotional responses may drive pro-environmental behaviors (as suggested by powerful work conducted by Brian Knutson and Nik Sawe). Such findings are critical on the heel of recent task force reports underscoring the necessity of an affective level of analysis given the collective impact of emotion relevant processes (such as emotion regulation and responding) on shaping broad-based environmental outcomes. Importantly too, are related advances from psychology providing recommendations for applying insights about individual affective reactions to increase public engagement in motivating pro-environmental behaviors.

This recently burgeoning area of work at the intersection of affective science and environmental psychology provides initial proof-of-concept demonstrations that emotions can improve environmental health by shaping our emotional reactions towards environmental issues as well as the frequency and degree of conservationist behaviors. Yet much work remains to be done, and many scientific highlights are still on the horizon. These include mapping the reciprocal relationship between our emotions and environmental choices in everyday decision-making and policy planning. We also need to learn more about how rapid changes in immediate environmental surroundings (e.g., access to clean water, local air pollution) might have reciprocal downstream effects on affective states and motivated behaviors. In addition, it will be critical to further investigate whether and how individual judgments and real-world choice behaviors can scale to aggregate policy level as well.

As pressing environmental concerns grow—including rapid deforestation, increasing carbon dioxide emissions, habitat destruction, and threats to critical areas of biodiversity—insights from affective science will become increasingly important. Thus, what appears at first glimpse as an interesting recent news topic has quickly transformed into an indefinitely critical and deeply urgent scientific focus. The time has come for social scientists to join the ranks of engineers, natural scientists, and policy makers seeking to preserve and enhance environmental well-being.