How Much Energy Do People Need for Health, Happiness, and Well-Being?

At a certain point, having more doesn't make much difference.

Happy family in tuscany
A happy family in Tuscany, Italy.

Cultura RM / Getty Images

A new Stanford University study looks at human well-being and per capita energy use, confirming what we have often written in Treehugger: Yes, having lots of energy has made our lives richer and better, but you can have too much of a good thing.

Improved access to energy has made our modern civilization possible. As writer and professor Vaclav Smil wrote in "Energy and Civilization": "It has resulted first in rapid industrialization and urbanization, in the expansion and acceleration of transportation, and in an even more impressive growth of our information and communication capabilities; and all of these developments have combined to produce long periods of high rates of economic growth that have created a great deal of real affluence, raised the average quality of life for most of the world’s population."

But energy is not fairly distributed. According to Max Roser, Our World in Data founder and director: "The first energy problem of the world is the problem of energy poverty—those that do not have sufficient access to modern energy sources suffer poor living conditions as a result."

We have often pointed out that rich countries use far too much energy and people experiencing energy poverty use too little. Now, the Stanford study looks at the correlation between energy use and well-being to find out how much energy per capita is enough to satisfy human needs.

“We need to address equity in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions," lead study author Rob Jackson told Stanford News. "Among the least sustainable ways to do that would be to raise everyone to the levels of consumption we have in the United States.”

Levels plotted against energy supply
Levels plotted against energy supply.

Robert Jackson et al.

The study looked at nine metrics of health and economic and environmental well-being: access to electricity, air quality, food supply, the Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality), happiness, infant mortality, life expectancy, prosperity, and sanitation. The graph plots these against the national per capita energy supply in gigajoules. The team found life improves pretty much for everyone as energy consumption improves, although not at the same rate for every country. Some underperform with less improvement using more energy, and others—like Malta, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Albania, Iceland, Finland, Bangladesh, Norway, Morocco, and Denmark—get more bang for their energy buck.

The global average energy consumption per capita is 79 gigajoules, with American consumption being 284 gigajoules per person. But the study finds almost all nine factors top out at about 75 gigajoules per person, a quarter of the American average, and the rest isn't adding much to our health, happiness, or well-being. As study co-author and climate scientist Anders Ahlström noted, "Energy supply is similar to income in that way: Excess energy supply has marginal returns.”

The study concludes:

"That billions of people need access to more energy to maximize well-being is well known. That billions of other people could in principle reduce energy use with little or no loss in health, happiness, or other outcomes is more surprising, reducing the need for some additional energy infrastructure and increasing global equity."
Energy Use per person

Our World in Data

None of this will be news to regular Treehugger readers, although we rarely talk about gigajoules. The 75 gigajoules per person well-being target converts to 20,833 kilowatt/hours; this interactive version of the map makes it easier to see which countries fall in that happy range—which are over and which are under. It becomes pretty clear that Americans are pretty profligate and Canadians are even worse.

The study is also not the first to note that high energy used doesn't necessarily correlate with happiness and well-being. As Smil noted while looking at these kinds of numbers in his book, "Energy and Civilization":

 "Satisfying basic human needs obviously requires a moderate level of energy inputs, but international comparisons clearly show that further quality-of-life gains level off with rising energy consumption. Societies focusing more on human welfare than on frivolous consumption can achieve a higher quality of life while consuming a fraction of the fuels and electricity used by more wasteful nations. Contrasts between Japan and Russia, Costa Rica and Mexico, or Israel and Saudi Arabia make this obvious. In all of these cases, the external realities of energy flows have obviously been of secondary importance to internal motivations and decisions. Very similar per capita energy use (for example, that of Russia and New Zealand) can produce fundamentally different outcomes."

The Stanford study, Smil, or for that matter, my book "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," where I called for "simpler and sufficiency-oriented lifestyles to address over-consumption—consuming better but less," all say pretty much the same thing: At some point, burning more energy or emitting more carbon doesn't buy much more happiness or wellbeing. And that point might just be 75 gigajoules.

View Article Sources
  1. Garthwaite, Josie. "Stanford study finds high energy use provides little benefit for health and well-being in richer nations." Stanford News Service. 12 April 2022.

  2. Jackson, Robert B., et al. "Human well-being and per capita energy use." Ecosphere, vol. 13, no. 4, April 2022. doi:10.1002/ecs2.3978

  3. Smil, Vaclav. "Energy and Civilization: A History." The MIT Press, 2017.