When Thomas Edison revolutionized the light bulb he probably had a very good idea of just how much electric lighting would improve people’s lives and well-being. That’s probably why he was willing to kill an elephant for it. In fact, all the people who brought us things like modern transportation, refrigeration, and water sanitation probably all had similar vision to Edison, because they knew just how life-changing these things could be. However while each of these technologies improved our well-being, after a certain point, adding more technology and respective energy use eventually stops leading to improved well-being. Have you ever purchased something new thinking, “this is exactly what I need to improve my well-being!” only to be temporarily amused before setting your sights on something else?
This is something known as the Energy-Happiness Paradox and is something researchers found to be true across 140 countries. Researchers took data from 140 countries on nine different really important indicators to measure well-being; indicators such as access to electricity, air quality, food supply, infant mortality, life expectancy, prosperity, sanitation, even happiness and something called the ginny coefficient, which is basically an indicator of income inequality. The researchers then compared these indicators to the amount of energy each person used in the country. This allowed researchers to see if higher energy consuming lifestyles had equally high measures of well-being. What the researchers found was that the maximum performance was reached at just about 75 gigajoules per year. In other words, once you use about 75 gigajoules per year, your ability to increase indicators of your well-being through consuming more energy becomes harder and harder. Going from no energy, to let’s say, 25 gigajoules can be life-changing. Add another 25 gigajoules on top to get up to 50 gigajoules does a little bit less, even though it was the same increase in energy as going from zero to 25 gigajoules, and a further increase of 25 gigajoules does a bit less. And after that point even a single gigajoule can do almost nothing.
You may think access to more stuff and respective energy consumption will make your life better, but after you used about 75 gigajoules of energy, it really won’t. This is interesting, because other studies show something similar to money; that once your basic needs are met, more money does little to increase your overall happiness and well-being. In fact other studies have shown that energy is not necessary for happiness, nor directly linked to it. Maybe we need to change the expression money can’t buy happiness to energy can’t buy happiness.
Now just for reference, depending on where you live and how energy efficient your home is, 75 gigajoules is about the amount of energy needed for a freezer and refrigerator, water heating, space heating and cooling, lighting, a washer and dryer, and running a dishwasher. And while this may sound like a lot, this doesn’t even include things like cooking fuel, driving fuel, electricity for tv, smartphones, kitchen appliances, computers, and everything else we use energy for. Now this is just an example, but the point is you can have a very happy and healthy life with only enough energy to meet some of our basic needs. So if this is true, why does this paradox exist at all?
Well, researchers don’t really know for sure, but one possible explanation is that like anything else, we often set our expectations too high and are not nearly as satisfied with things as we believe we’re going to be. Another explanation is that once we have more we don’t look back with satisfaction we simply look forward to what’s next. So what does all this mean? Basically, it means that once our basic needs are met; things like shelter, alleviation of extreme temperatures, food, transportation, and so on, we really don’t need much more. We could all probably use less energy and be nearly just as happy, but with the improved benefit of a more sustainable future since we’re using less energy and fossil fuels. Maybe we need to step back and realize we don’t need more to have happiness we need to be more happy with what we have. In fact, there are hundreds if not thousands of studies that show that rather than using more energy to try and improve your life, you can improve your well-being more through actions such as relaxation, meditation, and exercise, all things that require little energy consumption.
If you’d like to learn how to get your energy consumption at or below the 75 gigajoules mentioned earlier check out some of my other articles.