Air pollution 'makes people feel unhappy'

James Marshall
January 23, 2019

Happiness levels on social media decline during periods of high air pollution, according to a groundbreaking study from MIT.

Research has previously shown air pollution is damaging to health, cognitive performance, labour productivity and educational outcomes. "People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions".

In a paper published earlier this week in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers applied an algorithm that measured the sentiment of 210 million geotagged tweets from China's largest social media platform, Sina Weibo.

According to the research, every surge in air pollution above a healthy level made the happiness index drop by 0.04 points.

The research team includes co-first author Wang Jianghao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Matthew Kahn from the University of Southern California, Sun Cong from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and Zhang Xiaonan from Tsinghua University in Beijing. Researchers also noted that China's annual economic growth rate of 8 percent is not elevating the happiness level of people living in urban areas.

It suggests that people were four points unhappier than they would have been without polluted levels. But the study did not prove that air pollution actually causes unhappiness.

The investigators also used data on levels of ultrafine particulate matter (PM 2.5) from air quality readings released by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection. Particulate matter is microscopic pollutants that can lodge deep in the lungs.

"We investigate the effect of air pollution on our happiness index".

A person's sensitivity to air pollution was greater on weekends and women were two times more sensitive than men. The researchers looked at 144 different Chinese cities, some smoggier than others, and found that polluted days had the biggest effect on mood in both cities where the air was particularly dirty and those that typically had the cleanest air.

This may be because people who are especially anxious about their health and air quality tend to move to clean cities, while those in dirty cities are more aware of the damage to their health from exposure to pollution, Zheng explained. The researchers established that there's a link between air pollution and sadness. Note: material may have been edited for length and content.

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