The choking smog of Delhi NCR and the deteriorating air quality in a cluster of Indian cities in the recent years has directed a sharp spotlight on the impact of air pollution on health, such as the sharp hikes in respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, hospitalisations and mortality in the general population. The risk is however not limited to tangible, physical health.
If the images of winter smog momentarily seem to illustrate dystopia, it may not be just one’s imagination. Worsening air pollution has been putting a damper on our short-term happiness — the effect is real. Recent research from the International Food Policy Research Institute [IFPRI] investigates a less tangible yet salient impact of air pollution: its effect on mental health and subjective well-being. The research, titled “Happiness in the air: How does a dirty sky affect mental health and subjective well-being?”and conducted in China, found that exposure to air pollution over time reduces hedonic happiness and increases the rate of depressive symptoms. Hedonic happiness is the kind which is experienced moment-to-moment and which directly links to immediate emotions and affection, unlike evaluative happiness, which is like overall life satisfaction and therefore is less likely subject to short-term changes in external environment.
This adverse impact on mental health and happiness is particularly telling in people who are more concerned with environmental problems, work outdoors, earn lower incomes, reside in more/less polluted areas, or have young children. For instance, families with under-16 children were found more emotionally vulnerable.
“We found when exposed to severe air pollution, people are more likely to develop depressive symptoms, feel less happy, and perform worse in cognitive tests,” says Xiaobo Zhang, one of the co-authors of the study and Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI in Beijing, China. The negative impact is stronger for men than for women due to biological reasons, he told Indianexpress.com. Also more vulnerable are the less educated and outdoor workers, he added.
The role of air pollution in loss of productivity is well known. In 2013, the World Bank estimated that pollution razed nearly eight per cent of India’s GDP. This may not be entirely due to physical illnesses as the research shows that the mental health of indoor workers is also affected by pollution, albeit to a lesser extent than those who primarily work outdoors.
Pollution can make nations unhappy
The study also identifies worsening air pollution as one of the unattributed factors which has contributed to lowering the happiness quotient of the Chinese demographic over a period of time, despite the nation undergoing rapid economic growth in the same period.
“From 2007 to 2014, the proportion of people reporting unhappiness in China has increased … Of course, there are many possible causes, such as inequality, corruption, and pollution,” Zhang told Indianexpress.com, “Income inequality, an important contributor of happiness, has declined in the period. Since 2012, China has launched massive anti-corruption campaign to diffuse people’s dissatisfaction about corrupted officials. Therefore, worsening air pollution, which has shown to be related to happiness, likely has contributed to the decline in happiness in China.”
India and China are rivals in many arenas and deadly air pollution statistics is also unfortunately among them. The two countries were found to be neck-to-neck in being the most polluted and together sharing half of all air pollution related early deaths globally — according a report published in February by a Boston-based NGO that specialises in studying the effects of pollution.
Given that, Beijing and Delhi have this growing pain in common, “the research may in fact hold lessons for India as well, given it is facing a similar situation in its capital city,” says Zhang.
(The study was jointly based on the work of Xiaobo Zhang, Professor of Economics at Peking University with Xi Chen of Yale University and Xin Zhang of Beijing Normal University.)