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Stop worrying about the environment - it isn’t helping

Feeling cheery? Set up a recycling bin! dunkr/Flickr

Australians worry about the environment but they do little to protect it. Psychological research offers one possible solution: stop worrying! Feeling happy is in fact the best way to encourage environmentally friendly actions.

According to a recent OECD report, Greening Household Behaviour, many Australians worry about environmental issues, such as loss of biodiversity, pollution, and climate change. But the report also shows that Australians do little to reduce their impact on the environment.

Australians are among the highest consumers of water per household member and although the vast majority of us recognize energy labels on appliances, very few have actually installed energy-efficient appliances.

If Australians are so worried about the environment, why do we do so little to protect it?

Traditional methods of encouraging people to be more environmentally sustainable rely on information campaigns to increase awareness and concern about environmental issues. However, information by itself is rarely successful in getting people to change behaviour or take action.

Research in psychology has shown that the way we feel — being in a positive or negative mood for example — can greatly influence how we interact with other people and the world around us.

When we are in a good mood we are open to a wider range of experiences and are more likely to build up resources we can call upon later.

Being happy, for example, might lead someone to start up a conversation with a stranger, which potentially expands their social network (and builds up their social resources).

Current research in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland shows that putting a more positive spin on pro-environmental issues may be more effective in promoting environmentally friendly action than doom and gloom messages that encourage concern and worry.

Findings of a recent study demonstrate that positive emotions, such as feeling happy, satisfied and excited, are associated with more environmentally friendly behaviours in the workplace.

Employees working in small businesses across a wide range of occupations in Brisbane took part in a daily diary study. Every day over a period of two weeks, these employees reported their feelings at noon, and then in the evening they reported what types of environmentally friendly behaviours they carried out at work that day.

The study showed that when people were feeling more positive they tried to do more for the environment, whereas negative emotions made no difference in behaviour.

The study also showed that different types of positive emotions led to different types of pro-environmental behaviour. When people were feeling active positive emotions, such as enthusiasm or excitement, they were more likely to take pro-environmental action at work, doing things that went above and beyond expectations.

For example, an employee who feels enthusiastic might set up a new recycling bin for everyone to use. Interestingly this effect was especially strong for people who were generally not committed to the environment. People who normally care a lot about the environment tend to act in environmentally friendly ways no matter how they are feeling on a particular day.

On the other hand, when people were feeling less active positive emotions, such as feeling relaxed or content, they were more likely to carry out environmentally friendly behaviours that are widely accepted and commonplace.

So employees who are feeling relaxed or content are likely to use the recycling bin that is readily available as opposed to not recycling or setting up a new recycling system.

What do these findings mean for public policy and efforts to increase environmentally responsible behaviour and decision-making?

Policy and programs aiming to promote environmentally friendly behaviour need to think about the emotions they invoke.

By understanding the link between emotions and environmental behaviour, organisational practitioners, campaigners and government agencies can craft messages that create the appropriate emotions. This would allow them to more successfully promote environmentally friendly behaviours and changes.

To support more commonly carried out behaviours, such as conserving water by taking shorter showers, it might be best to create campaigns that make people relaxed and calm.

On the other hand, when the targeted behaviour is something that involves a change, such as installing a water-efficient showerhead, perhaps it is best to inspire feelings of enthusiasm and excitement.

Human behaviour is complex and multi-faceted. Environmentally friendly behaviour is no exception. There is no simple button that we can push to get people to ‘do the right thing’.

Instead, social change requires multiple approaches — information, regulation, voluntary change campaigns to name a few — that appeal to our diverse communities.

What the current research shows, though, is that putting a positive spin on environmental messages may be the way to go.

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