The Happiness-Energy Paradox: Energy Use is Unrelated to Subjective Well-Being


Earth’s per capita energy use continues to grow, despite technological advances and widespread calls for reduction in energy consumption. The negative environmental consequences are well known: resource depletion, pollution, and global warming. However many remain reluctant to cut energy consumption because of the widespread, although, implicit, belief that a nation’s well being depends on its energy consumption. This article systematically examines the evidential support for the relationship between energy use and subjective well-being at the societal level, by integrating data from multiple sources, collected at multiple levels of government, and spanning four decades. This analysis reveals, surprisingly, that the most common measure of subjective well-being, life satisfaction, is unrelated to energy use -- whether measured at the national, state or county level. The nil relationship between happiness and energy use is reminiscent of the well-known Easterlin Paradox, however the causal mechanisms responsible to each remain in question. We discuss the possible causes for the Happiness-Energy paradox and potential policy implications.

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  1. 1.

    The concept of subjective well being (SWB) has been well-studied, for recent reviews see Diener (2009) and Diener et al. (2013). It is now widely recognized in this field of study that SWB is a broad multidimensional concept that unifies such popular concepts as (affective) happiness, and life satisfaction. Because it is a multidimensional concept, a complete measurement of all aspects of SWB requires collecting a large set of measures from each subject. Most broad-scale research in this field aims to measure the cognitive dimension of SWB, i.e., life satisfaction, because of its general domain (necessary for cross-comparisons), and established validity and reliability (see, Diener et al. 2013). We follow the standard practice in this area, and make use only empirical data and use life-satisfaction as our measure of SWB.

  2. 2.

    As argued later, only developing nations could improve SWB through greater energy consumption, but across the developed world, the relationship between energy consumption and SWB is nil.

  3. 3.

    This is known as saturation, first mentioned with respect to human development by Martinez and Ebenhack (2008).

  4. 4.

    The series code is TERPB, and further information is available at

  5. 5.

    Total residential electricity consumption has two components: (A) validated Quarterly Fuel and Energy Report (QFER) retail sales/delivery data and (B) self-generation. Electricity Consumption = retail sales + self-generation. Retail sales: electricity amounts delivered from the grid and consumed by the customer. Self-generation: electricity produced and consumed on-site by the customer (for example, parking lot roofs covered with PV panels). Self-generation only contributes to total consumption and not to total sales.

  6. 6.

    Parts of California, notably Los Angeles, are often argued as examples of wasteful suburbanization, yet Los Angeles new homes are much smaller than average (

  7. 7.

    Notably, Central and Eastern Europe have been suburbanizing recently (Stanilov and Sýkora 2014).

  8. 8.

    While we believe the the behavioral explanations are pivotal, there are other potential explanations. For instance, access to technology may affect the threshold energy level needed to meet core human needs.

  9. 9.

    Primary energy use (before transformation to other end-use fuels) in kilograms of oil equivalent, per capita from World Development Indicators accessed through SWB data come from Frey and Stutzer (2002) and Easterlin et al. (2012)--note that Chinese SWB slightly increased in last several years. Also note that in the US both energy use per capita and SWB remain flat over past four decades (using GSS data and above measure of energy use). We provide additional analyses in supplementary material.


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We thank anonymous reviewer for pointing out that the relation between energy use and SWB is very similar to the relation between economic growth and SWB (i.e., the Happiness Paradox).

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Correspondence to Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn.

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Okulicz-Kozaryn, A., Altman, M. The Happiness-Energy Paradox: Energy Use is Unrelated to Subjective Well-Being. Applied Research Quality Life 15, 1055–1067 (2020).

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  • Energy use
  • Energy consumption
  • Energy intensity of economy
  • Sustainability
  • Happiness
  • Life satisfaction
  • Subjective well-being (SWB)