Smiles are fading away in smoke

Beijing: Air pollution may contribute to low levels of happiness among urban population, according to a study which combed through millions of social media posts from residents of 144 Chinese cities. For many years, China has been struggling to tackle high pollution levels that are crippling its major cities, said researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found that higher levels of pollution are associated with a decrease in people’s happiness levels.

Despite an annual economic growth rate of eight per cent, satisfaction levels amongst China’s urban population have not risen as much as would be expected, researchers said. Alongside inadequate public services, soaring house prices, and concerns over food safety, air pollution – caused by the country’s industrialisation, coal burning, and increasing use of cars – has had a significant impact on quality of life in urban areas.

Research has previously shown that air pollution is damaging to health, cognitive performance, labour productivity, and educational outcomes. However, air pollution also has a broader impact on people’s social lives and behaviour, according to Siqi Zheng, an associate professor at MIT.

“Pollution also has an emotional cost. People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions,” Zheng said. On polluted days, people have been shown to be more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behaviour that they may later regret, possibly as a result of short-term depression and anxiety, according to Zheng.

The researchers, including those from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, used real-time data from social media to track how changing daily pollution levels impact people’s happiness in 144 Chinese cities. To measure daily happiness levels for each city, the team applied a machine-learning algorithm to analyse the 210 million geotagged tweets from China’s largest microblogging platform, Sina Weibo.

They found a significantly negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. Women were more sensitive to higher pollution levels than men, as were those on higher incomes. When the researchers looked at the type of cities that the tweets originated from, they found that people from the very cleanest and very dirtiest cities were the most severely affected by pollution levels.

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