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Life satisfaction and the environment

Life satisfaction and the environment

Our cities are not walkable. Our air is polluted, and our water full of filth. And all of this impacts us. Shouldn’t we be living an environmentally better life?

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arini Nagendra
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 19:20 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 19:20 IST
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The cities that I grew up in -- Delhi and Bengaluru -- were green, and walkable, cities of nature. On weekends, we went with our parents and friends to Cubbon Park, Lal Bagh, Lodhi Gardens and picnicked on the lawns, fed grass to the deer, watched the squirrels, crows, and monkeys squabble. Many of the older parts of Bengaluru were accessible on foot or bicycle -- I remember one frantic lunchbreak when my classmate and I realised we had forgotten to buy micro weights for Chemistry lab class, and cycled all the way from the school grounds in Thippasandra to a shop in Cambridge Layout, bought the stuff, and returned, having covered a distance of close to 7 km, in about 20 minutes. We didn’t have any time for lunch after that, but we did avoid getting thrown out of the lab!

It would be impossible to cycle that distance in half that speed now. Not just because I am a few decades older now, but also because the traffic makes the roads spectacularly unsafe. Some years back, we surveyed street vendors across Bengaluru to ask them why they chose to sit below trees, as they so often do. One answer stood out. A seller of pirated DVDs, his hand in a plaster cast, had set up a stall on the footpath next to the trunk of a giant raintree. He told the students that his arm was fractured when a motorbike rider came onto the footpath and knocked him over. He re-established his stall next to a tree, so that bikers would steer clear of it on the footpath.

What a sad paean to the state of our city! This interview was conducted about 15 years ago, but the situation has only worsened since. In the interior parts of the city near M G Road, and in some older areas like Malleswaram, it is still possible to walk to the school, to shops, to a friend’s home. But walking has become a casualty in most parts of Bengaluru -- and many other Indian cities -- where one needs to purchase a treadmill or a gym membership, walking on a piece of plastic inside four walls to get exercise, instead of being outdoors, under a tree canopy or by a picturesque lake.

This is why I was not surprised, but felt vindicated, when I read a recent research paper in the journal Social Forces, published by Mark Suchyta and colleagues from Butler University and Michigan State University, which examined self-reported data on life satisfaction from a Gallup cross-national study. Looking at a database of more than 97,000 people, living in 96 countries, they found some of the usual suspects influencing people’s satisfaction with their lives -- notably, their household income, education, and employment status. Other studies have observed similar results. However, these researchers went beyond these well-known variables to examine the impact of environmental quality on life satisfaction.

People who were satisfied with their local air quality, local water quality, and with their country’s investment in environmental protection, consistently reported higher levels of life satisfaction. This was true, even after accounting for potentially confounding factors such as age, gender, household income, or the wealth of the country. Of the three environmental factors, the one that made the most impact on life satisfaction was water quality -- not surprising, when you think of the role that water plays in our daily lives. From drinking to cleaning, bathing to worship, clean water is essential to us, indeed a universal right. Yet, the sad reality is that access to clean water is far from universal -- especially in cities like ours. A casual glance at your neighbourhood polluted lake will confirm this.

Our cities are not walkable. Our air is polluted, and our water full of filth. And all of this impacts us. Shouldn’t we be living an environmentally better life?

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