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Going green makes you feel better, even when it's hard, SFU study finds

Randy Shore, Postmedia Network

Sixteenth annual Tomato Festival at the Trout Lake Farmers Market at John Hendry Park at Trout Lake in Vancouver Saturday, August 26, 2017. (Photo by Jason Payne/ PNG)

Sixteenth annual Tomato Festival at the Trout Lake Farmers Market at John Hendry Park at Trout Lake in Vancouver Saturday, August 26, 2017. (Photo by Jason Payne/ PNG)

Taking action to help the environment enhances your feeling of well-being and if that action is difficult or expensive, you might feel even better, according to a study by Simon Fraser University.

The connection between helping the environment and emotional reward is more complicated than helping a friend or neighbour, according to co-author Michael Schmidt.

The effects of assisting your elderly neighbour with his shopping are immediate and you feel the gratitude. Green behaviour is more complex, because you can't detect the environmental impact of buying Energy Star appliances quite as easily.

"It's hard to see the effects of some of the things that we do, but we might still have a firm belief that those actions are making a difference," he said.

And the more onerous the sacrifice, the more convinced we are that we are doing the right thing.

"Some of the more costly behaviours in terms of time, money and effort were the most strongly linked to life satisfaction," said Schmidt. "If people are putting in a lot effort, people perceive them as making a bigger difference."

The researchers compared the impact of 39 environmentally beneficial behaviours, from turning off unnecessary lights and turning off the water while brushing your teeth to becoming a vegetarian, growing your own food and cycling rather than driving.

"The more challenging actions feel more meaningful and have a strong effect on life satisfaction," he said. "They really are acts of giving, sharing your own resources for the benefit of the environment and other people."

Believing that your behaviour is having a beneficial impact on others appears to be the most important factor, even when the benefits are decades away.

"The things we do to mitigate environmental problems happen or help over the long term and the implications unfold over the long term," he said. "That is what makes eco-friendly behaviours different from other helping behaviours."

Actions that build community and relationships, such as buying vegetables at the farmers market, also had a strong impact on life satisfaction. The farmers market is also a place where people support and reward the notion that buying local or organic is a help to the environment and to people, he said.

Policy-makers should take care in the way they sell pro-environmental regulations that impose dramatic lifestyle changes, he said.

"Some of the larger changes that need to be made should be framed not as arm-twisting, as they are now, so much as opportunities to help others," said Schmidt.

The study was published in the journal Ecological Economics.

rshore@postmedia.com