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The happiness of living with birds

Investing in the conservation of natural habitats not only serves to protect diverse flora and fauna, it also benefits people. This is the conclusion drawn by Kiel-based economist Katrin Rehdanz in a recently published study.

crested tit
© Frank Derer

Birds like this crested tit are beautiful to look at, they are easy to observe and their song gives joy. Where many bird species live, people seem to be happier.

The happiest Europeans are those who see the largest number of bird species during their everyday lives. This was the finding of a study in which the life satisfaction of people from 26 European countries was correlated with data on biodiversity. Kiel-based Professor Katrin Rehdanz from the Institute for Environmental, Resources and Regional Economics was also involved in this study. "For the study, we analysed data collected from regular surveys on the living conditions of people in Europe." The survey is called the European Quality of Life Survey and it captures a wealth of data on the living conditions of a representative sample of the population, including information on household income, household composition, place of residence, age, employment and political opinions. One section of the survey also includes questions about subjective well-being.

The statistical analysis linked the life satisfaction results of 26,000 people from the European Union to data on biodiversity (birds, mammals, trees) and other natural features. It demonstrated that the higher the number of bird species in an area, the more satisfied the surveyed inhabitants were with their living conditions. The analysis also showed that a ten percent increase in the number of bird species was accompanied by an even greater increase in life satisfaction compared with a ten percent increase in income.

Other factors, such as employment, are also important for life satisfaction. "The effects of unemployment on satisfaction are clearly measurable," said Rehdanz. "Other important factors include income, of course, but also social contacts and household composition."

Place of residence is also crucial to an individual's life satisfaction – irrespective of biodiversity. "Studies have shown that the happiest Germans live in Schleswig-Holstein." Compared with other European countries, however, the Danes are a step ahead. A deciding factor here is Denmark's relatively rural setting. According to Rehdanz, "People living in big cities are generally less satisfied."

The study cannot directly explain the mechanisms behind the positive relationship between the number of bird species and subjective well-being. However, other studies have concluded that observing birds and their behaviour in gardens or in the wild promotes positive emotions. A high number of bird species is also an indicator of regional and local landscape features that promote life satisfaction.

Birds are also perfect indicators of an area's biological diversity. The study therefore underlines the importance of protecting biodiversity for people, too. No economic indicators have yet been created for biodiversity, clean air and intact natural habitats. "Services provided by nature are taken for granted in our global economy," said Rehdanz, who has been researching the value of environmental assets for many years. "Nobody has to pay for biodiversity or the rainforests that regulate the climate. However, if people carry on unchanged," said Rehdanz, "this will not only put biodiversity at risk, but also people themselves." The study showed that nature conservation is just as important to human well-being as financial security, she said. Investing in the conservation of habitats is therefore worthwhile because it also contributes to human well-being.

The Economics of Biodiversity report commissioned by the British Government and published in February 2021 highlights the fact that nature is still not considered in the measurement of a country's economic performance. The study underlines the need for a fundamental change in the way we measure economic success in the future. A change in the way we think can help stop the loss of biological diversity and, at the same time, protect and reinforce a society's prosperity.

Author: Kerstin Nees