The surprising link between energy use and well-being

At Econation, we believe that what is good for the planet is good for people and what is good for people is also better for the planet. We have looked at ways in which reducing your ecological footprint will improve your well being; an example of this is the link between lower energy use and well-being.

Research done by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi showed that there was a negative relationship between energy con­sumed and positive emotion. The reason for this may suggest a new way of thinking about consuming, one that maximises the quality of experience while minimising the amount of energy used as a result.

One reason activities with low generated energy requirements result in greater positive emotion is that they usually require greater inputs of mental energy. Having an enjoyable conversation makes very little demands on energy consumption, if any, but it demands con­centrated attention and mental activity. Likewise, activities such as reading, gardening, painting, craftwork, yoga, writing poetry, or doing math­ematics don’t use much produced energy but they do require peoples’ mental and physical energy.

Finding the link between low energy use and well-being

Another study, by Joseph Kantenbacher, now an Assistant Professor, Sustainability & Environment at the University of South Dakota, measured the relationship between well-being activities and energy savings. Kantenbacher analysed how people use their time when they are not working, and then identified how much energy each of these activities use.

Kantenbacher’s calculations, measured in megajoules per hour, included three types of energy use:

  1. travel energy (e.g petrol/gasoline, jet fuel)
  2. household energy (e.g. electricity, gas, diesel)
  3. embedded energy (energy used to produce goods like food and drink)

Kantenbacher’s results show that sleeping, socialising and doing hobbies at home, which all contribute to positive emotion and well-being overall, use the least amount of energy. Like Csikszentmihalyi’s findings it seems that what is good for people is also good for the planet.

Let’s look at some of these activities in more detail.

Get more sleep

In Kantenbacher’s research, sleep is the least energy consuming activity. Many people are sleep-deprived. The average adult should get somewhere between seven and nine hours sleep every day. The benefits to your well-being of sleeping more could be dramatic, especially if you generally aren’t getting enough. Lack of sleep has been associated with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other physical ailments, not to mention many thousands of car accidents a year. Adequate sleep is also associated with more positive affect. Read more about the benefits of sleep here »


The second least energy consuming activity in Kantenbacher’s research is socialising, especially at home, or somewhere you can walk to. However, if you socialise away from home and you have to drive to get there, then the activity becomes much more energy intensive, because transportation is such a big energy user.

Once again, the research literature is pretty clear that having a good social life, and interacting frequently with people, is good for your mental health. Socialising, like sleep, is a key factor contributing to people’s life satisfaction. Read more about the importance and benefits of relationships »

Share your energy use

Sharing is a great way to reduce your ecological footprint. When people congregate, they share their energy use. That behavior can have a large-scale, measurable impact on residential energy consumption.

The company Opower (now part of Oracle Corporation) analysed residential energy use data and found that home energy use decreases by 5 to 10 percent at Thanksgiving and also during the Super Bowl. In both cases, Opower reasoned that the fact that more people are gathered together with family or friends in a single home, and are therefore not using energy at multiple homes. Read more about social consumption » and cultural and creative consumption »

Find a hobby, volunteer, or do something for your soul

Kantenbacher’s third least energy intensive activity group includes hobbies, volunteering, and spiritual activities. Once again, these are all associated with happiness. Of course pursuing hobbies, particularly those that you feel passionate about, can also make you happier.

There is research tying volunteering to health, positive emotion and well-being. Read more about being generous »

Get more exercise

Kantenbacher’s chart also shows that engaging in sports and outdoor activities e.g. keeping healthy is also quite a low user of energy. That is especially the case if, like socialising, you take the transportation component out of the picture by, say, stepping out the door to go for a run, rather than driving to your gym to do so.

Obviously, exercise improves your health. Just 15 minutes of exercise a day, according to one recent study, translates into up to 3 additional years of life expectancy, and of course 30 minutes is even better. Read more about about physical well-being »