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Human happiness rooted in sustaining the Earth

Eric Lambin, a professor in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences, is a world leader in the study of land use and human-environment interactions. In his most recent book, An Ecology of Happiness (University of Chicago Press, 2012), Lambin examines the relationship between the environment and human happiness, health, and security. He argues that sustainable development benefits not only the environment but also our personal wellbeing. Writer Benjamin Shaw sat down with Lambin to talk about his findings.

February 10, 2013
Eric Lambin
Eric Lambin

Your primary research focuses on land use and studying the protection and destruction of natural environments around the world. How did you come to the idea of investigating happiness?

I’m specialized in the study of human-environment interactions. It’s very important to understand the multiple motivations of human behavior in interacting with nature. Clearly elements of the book are grounded in my research, but there was also a motivation to go beyond the details. I think it’s my responsibility, as a scientist, to not only do cutting edge research, but sometimes to also set out the kind of broad message that I convey in this book. It’s important to motivate sustainable behavior.

When I get out on the water or go for a hike in the mountains, I know I feel recharged. But what scientific evidence do we have that nature is what’s having a direct impact on my happiness and well-being?

The very first empirical evidence on this was collected in a hospital: after painful operations, the patients who had a room with a view of nature recovered much faster, with fewer painkillers. The ones without views of nature did not do as well. That kind of evidence has been replicated for jails, offices and other settings.

You write about how humans feel a sense of security when we have open space and proximity to water.

That’s known as biophilia, a theory from the famous Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. It’s the assumption that our human species has been selected for many generations for certain abilities that would have helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors. That would suggest a biological grounding to the feelings we get out of nature.

But we don’t have to go that far to explain the connection. We are social animals. We not only need to relate to other people but we also need to relate to other beings, to other natural elements.

Is that why our relationships with animals often comfort us?

Scenes that involve animals are even more dynamic than landscapes. If you’re viewing a field, a meadow with some horses that are grazing, it’s sending your brain a signal that everything is okay. There’s no danger looming, no predators. The horses are not alert and therefore you can relax.

That helps explain why people enjoy golf.

Golf courses are landscapes that have all the elements required to ensure your survival. You have an open landscape so you can see any predators coming, there is always water, and you have these little clumps of woods where you could hide and lead your family into safety. These savannah-like landscapes were associated with the origin of our species.

Interestingly, when people are presented with pictures of different landscapes, whether they’re living in downtown Manhattan, Eskimos living in northern latitudes, or pygmies living in a tropical forest, there is a statistical preference for these open landscapes with clumps of trees and some water.

That’s the average response, of course. There will always be the ones who say I need tall buildings and traffic to be happy.

Beyond simply looking at how happy nature makes us, in this book you’re looking at the impact of environmental change on human well-being. You’re talking about more than CO2 pollution and higher temperatures, right?

I’m not just talking about climate. Almost of more immediate importance are the changes in local ecosystems because that’s the scale on which we connect with nature most directly. We don’t connect immediately with the global climate, but we do connect with landscapes and the ecosystems surrounding us. I write about changes in tree cover, changes in biodiversity and wildlife, and changes in the water cycle. When we say environmental change, I think there’s a tendency to think only of global warming. But there’s much more to it. All these components do indeed interact.

Health and happiness are closely linked.  You devote a large portion of this book to exploring how a changing environment will impact infectious disease. What is the connection?

As human activities encroach on the habitats of species that used to be completely separate from us, we create bridges between natural organisms and the human organism. The way we interact with nature does increase the risk of emerging diseases. And through globalization, we’ve created the perfect infrastructure to allow pathogens to spread globally in days or hours. That wasn’t the case before. In the 1300s, it took fifteen years for the plague to travel from Asia to Europe. Early in the 21st century, it took SARS only five days to make the same trip. On the other hand, we’ve now created a very efficient response system: the World Health Organization, sharing of information on the Internet, and pharmaceutical companies creating vaccines.

I try to emphasize that these are very complex interactions. Overall, global trade is very positive for human well-being. But occasionally there are side effects that we have to monitor.

What can people do to benefit nature and make themselves happier?

Eat less meat. It has so many benefits in terms of health, animal wellbeing, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, tropical forests conservation. Decrease by a factor of two or three your meat consumption, which is actually something we have done in my household. In fact, we eat much better now and it’s cheaper. When we do eat meat, we can go for small portions and higher quality.

Also, drive less. Bike or walk. It contributes to the good life. A lot of the materialistic behaviors are there to convey social status: driving a big car, owning a large house. We need to reverse the notion that buying stuff or big energy consumption conveys social status. If you could develop a value system where the person who consumes in a responsible way has a high social status, it would go a long way to reversing some of these trends. And it will make our life more meaningful.

A key message of my book is that we shouldn’t look at these actions as sacrifices for future generations. These are things you can do because they are good for you. You’ll be healthier, you’ll feel better. It happens to also be good for the planet.

Note: An Ecology of Happiness is available at the Stanford Bookstore (650.329.1217) and via