This one everyday factor affects happiness “as much as death and divorce”, new research finds

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Anna Brech

Happiness is the must-have commodity of the 21st Century, but we generally associate this elusive golden standard with qualities such as more sleep, better relationships and a finely tuned work-life balance.

What we didn’t factor into the equation (until now) is the impact of traffic fumes.

New research from the University of York has found that inhaling nitrogen dioxide – which pollutes the air mainly through road traffic – can take its toll on life satisfaction in a way that mirrors the fallout of major events, such as separation, bereavement or unemployment.

Environmental academics discovered that, relative to their magnitude, exhaust emissions have a “substansive” negative effect on wellbeing.

The results are interesting because they indicate the psychological cost of living in heavily polluted areas, that come in addition to well-documented physical ailments, including suppressed lung growth and heart disease.

“Our results suggest a significant and negative association between mean annual ambient NO2 and life satisfaction, and moreover that these effects are substantive and comparable to that of many ‘big hitting’ life events,” researchers Sarah J Knight and Peter Howley write, in a paper titled Can clean air make you happy?

“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 wellbeing reductions in the literature to date.”

Can inhaling exhaust fumes really have the same kind of impact on wellbeing as events such as death and divorce?

Can inhaling exhaust fumes really have the same kind of impact on wellbeing as events such as death and divorce?

Given that traffic pollution is, to a certain extent, experienced by everyone, the paper’s authors envisage significant “welfare gains to society” with the reduction of damaging fumes.

This January, London mayor Sadiq Khan branded the capital’s “filthy air” a “health crisis”, as nitrogen dioxide levels in the city surpassed those of Beijing – itself one of the most polluted urban centres in the world.

Khan said new air quality audits would be “a strong step towards helping some of the most polluted schools in London identify effective solutions to protect pupils from toxic fumes”.

Another 2013 study by researchers in Canada looked at pollution levels in 14 European cities, identifying a link between air fumes and unhappiness.

While the investigation could not identify exactly what caused this relationship, scientists concluded that policy changes directed at reducing emissions would have a positive effect on wellbeing (as well as health).

“A stronger case can be made for further regulation of the state of the environment in general and air quality in particular,” the team said. “Cleaner air will elevate the level of happiness of citizens in Europe and we suspect in other regions around the globe.”

Images: iStock

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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