Explore UCD

UCD Home >

Well being lab

Linking the environment to our quality of life

“…we examine the critical importance of the role of the environment in determining our well-being which is as important as the most critical socio-economic and socio-demographic factors….”

Dr. Finbarr Brereton Lab Director

What is well-being?

Well-being is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy” and in the Well-being Lab we examine what are the determinants of well-being or happiness.

What influences well-being?

For a long time income was commensurate with well-being, i.e. the more money you have the more well-being. Now we know that this is not the case and incomes can rise in line with mental health disorders, suicide, environmental degradation and declining social cohesion.

How do we measure it?

There are many ways to measure individual well-being; relative poverty, health indices, positive and negative effect, subjective happiness measures etc. It is the latter that economics field in particular has employed in recent years as an empirical approximation of the ‘good life’, ‘utility’, welfare’ or ‘well-being’ using questions such as:

“How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”


“Taken all together, how would you say things are these days - would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”

Where respondent give their answers using scales such as this;

What do we know?

Socio-demographic characteristics

  • Marital Status: Married and cohabiting are happiest, singles are next, separated, divorced and widowed are less happy
  • Age: International literature finds a U-shaped association between happiness and age
  • Health: poor health is correlated with unhappiness
  • Gender: Females are slightly happier, on average

Socio-economic characteristics

  • Employment: Self-employed are happiest, retired are happy, disabled (unable to work) are less happy, the unemployed are very unhappy
  • Household tenure: Owning out right is better, social housing is associated with less contentment
  • Income is interesting: At the individual level richer people are happier, but only up to a certain (modest) income, i.e. diminishing marginal utility of income. Nations are happier if they have low unemployment and inflation
What about the Environment?

Motivation: understanding the influence of the environment on happiness and the implications for policy. We examine:

  • Environmental amenities (natural); climate, landscapes, coastal regions
  • Location-specific facilities and services (built); transport and waste infrastructure; pollution
  • Proximity to these amenities; spatial distance from these amenities
What do we know about the environment?

The environment is as important for well-being as the socio-economic and demographic factors mentioned above and our proximity to these amenities matters.

Data Sources

  • Individual level: European Social Survey
  • Regional Level: CSO, EPA
  • European Level; EuroStat

(HAPpiness, Political Institutions, Natural Environment and Space) A comparative analysis of the influence of environmental conditions, environmental regimes and political context on subjective well-being.

These projects assessed energy supply and the structure of the energy system in terms of citizens’ utility, operationalized as subjective well-being (SWB). The encompassing question is what utility people derive from energy.

What about policy?

Access to facilities and services directly effects life satisfaction; issues that policy makers can influence in the short term, e.g. decisions about the location of major infrastructure; roads, airports, landfill sites; but also issues that policy makers cannot directly influence e.g. Climate (indirectly influenced by curbing GHG emissions).
The methodology employed (marginal rate of substitution between income and an environmental amenity) allows researchers to price what an individual would be willing to pay for an improvement in the environment and these figures can be used to tax polluters, e.g. clean air.
This would have influence over the setting of environmental taxes, general economic policy and in terms of compensation, especially in relation to the location of landfills.

Do governments see this information as useful?

Yes, and acceptance is growing

“A… unifying theme of the report … is that the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.”

Renewed Programme for Government 2009 “To get a better measure of progress in the country we will introduce a new national performance indicator which will be formulated using traditional economic data, along with other quality of life measurements which can be assessed and reported on a regular basis.”

United Kingdom
Prime Minister David Cameron established the “National Well-being Project,” and the Office for National Statistics published the UK's first official subjective well-being index in 2012.

Contact UCD Environmental Policy

University College Dublin, Richview, Clonskeagh, D14 E099, Ireland.
T: +353 1 716 2711 | E: pep@ucd.ie | Location Map(opens in a new window)