Traffic fumes as bad for happiness as bereavement or divorce, study suggests

Can clean air make you happy?

Air pollution caused by traffic fumes could be as bad for people’s level of happiness as a death in the family or divorce.

That’s according to a study from the University of York, which claims the effect of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) on life satisfaction is comparable with significant emotional trauma.

London traffic
London has some of the worst air pollution in the UK (Victoria Jones/PA)

The study, called Can Clean Air Make You Happy? used life satisfaction data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and UK Household Longitudinal Survey (UKHLS) – the largest household study of its kind – and compared this with air quality records from the Government’s environmental body DEFRA.

The study took into account a variety of variables which may have skewed the findings. These included statistics on crime, income, and population density – as well as areas of greenspace and water.

Women wearing masks
Some wear face masks in city centres (Dave Thompson/PA)

When comparing the effects of NO2 pollution with other effects on emotional wellbeing it was found to be comparable with other major life events including unemployment, divorce and the death of a partner.

“Our results suggest a significant and negative association between mean annual ambient NO2 and life satisfaction,” wrote authors Sarah J Knight and Peter Howley . “And moreover that these effects are substantive and comparable to that of many ‘big hitting’ life events.

“For example, our standardised coefficients suggest that the effect of NO2 on life satisfaction is equivalent to approximately half that of unemployment, and equivalent to that of marital separation and widowhood, factors commonly associated with some of the largest well-being reductions in the literature to date.”

Greenpeace mask
Greenpeace have staged protests over UK air pollution (Yui Mok/PA)

The researchers said their findings suggest reductions in NO2 pollution could create a “substantive” benefit to life satisfaction across the population.


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