Science

Smog can kill happiness, shows survey in China

Dull days: People wear respiratory masks in this file photo taken after a red alert for air pollution in Beijing.

Dull days: People wear respiratory masks in this file photo taken after a red alert for air pollution in Beijing.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

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The research conducted in China may hold lessons for India too, says author

As thick toxic smog envelops the national capital, a recently published scientific research paper has raised the prospect that it is not only people’s lungs but their very happiness and mental health that are at stake.

The paper Happiness in the air: How does a dirty sky affect mental health and subjective well-being?, published in the September 2017 edition of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, covers 160 representative counties/cities in China, including Beijing, to show that higher levels of pollution resulted in plunging measures of happiness. Life satisfaction and hedonic happiness demonstrated a positive relationship with air visibility, when plotted besides one another in a graph. Decline in visibility accounted for 6.6% of the actual decline in happiness during the period from 1997 through 2012, the study notes.

“Beijing has suffered severe air pollution over the past few years, and findings from our research on air pollution show that it adversely impacts residents’ state of happiness and they are likely to develop depressive symptoms. The research may in fact hold lessons for India as well, given that it is facing a similar situation in New Delhi. We found that when exposed to severe air pollution, people are more likely to develop depressive symptoms, feel less happy, and perform worse in cognitive tests. The negative impact is stronger for men than for women and is more pronounced for the less educated and outdoor workers,” said Xiaobo Zhang, a lead co-author of the study, who is a senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Beijing. Based on rigorous quantitative studies covering a large sample of individuals in China, the study results are expected to hold up in other developing countries too, Mr. Zhang said.

Research method

The researchers, Xin Zhang, Xiaobo Zhang and Xi Chenc, employed a national longitudinal survey of individuals, the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS) conducted in 2010 and 2012, in combination with contemporaneous local air quality and weather information at the time and location of the interview of informants, to arrive at these results. Information about geographic locations and dates of interviews for all respondents in the CFPS enabled the researchers to precisely match individual happiness measures in the survey with external air quality data.

Foreign Tourist wearing the mask, as fog/smog engulfed many parts of the capital, making poor visibility at the Lodhi Garden in New Delhi on Friday.

Foreign Tourist wearing the mask, as fog/smog engulfed many parts of the capital, making poor visibility at the Lodhi Garden in New Delhi on Friday.   | Photo Credit: R. V. Moorthy

 

For air quality data, the researchers used the air pollution index (API) published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection of China and air visibility data monitored by the National Climatic Data Centre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Air visibility complemented API in measuring air quality as it is easier to perceive by people.

The study also contributes to the debate about the Easterlin paradox, that is, the observation that over time happiness does not go up despite income growth.

Air pollution levels in New Delhi have been worse than those reported in Beijing in the past few days. Particulate matter pollution, which affects air visibility, touched ‘severe’ levels (400+) in New Delhi on Friday as per the National Air Quality Index, while a comparison of the same in Beijing, using the US Embassy’s Air Quality Index showed the same to be much lower.

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 8:52:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/smog-can-kill-happiness-study-shows/article20128530.ece

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