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The Wellbeing–Consumption Paradox

In 1974, Richard Easterlin made the paradoxical observation that income and happiness are correlated at a given point in time, but happiness does not rise as income increases over time. In our research, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, we reconsider the “Easterlin Paradox” using new data and methods. We analyse two wellbeing indicators (life satisfaction and life expectancy) and two consumption indicators (income and carbon footprint) for close to 120 countries over the 2005–2015 period.

We find that people in countries with high levels of consumption tend to be happier and healthier than people in countries with low levels of consumption in a given year, but there is no evidence that growing incomes or carbon footprint improve either wellbeing indicator over time. However, life satisfaction tends to decline in countries with non-growing incomes or carbon footprint, which is bad news for ambitious climate change mitigation. The good news is that life expectancy increases steadily in all countries regardless of whether incomes or carbon footprint are growing or not.

Use the dropdown menus to select indicators, and press PLAY or drag the slider to change years on the chart below. Select an individual country from the list to see how it performs over the 2005–2015 period (or keep scrolling down).

Although no country maintains high levels of wellbeing (above the blue dashed line) at a sustainable level of CO2 emissions (left of the green dashed line), there is considerable variability in how these indicators have changed over time in individual countries (with the exception of life expectancy, which increases steadily in all countries). Select an individual country from the menu below to see how it performs on each of the indicators, and compare with other countries.