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These New Year’s resolutions won’t just make you happier — they’ll lower your electricity bill

Sleeping is the least energy intensive activity. It's also good for you. Credit: Bigstock.
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It's that time of year -- one where we're all looking for New Year's resolutions, little (or big tweaks) that will improve us, in some way, in 2015. But did you ever think that your New Year's resolution might also save energy? 

Earlier this month, we reported on surprising research suggesting that a  number of activities that make us happier and improve our sense of well being -- sleeping more, socializing more, exercising more, volunteering and pursuing hobbies -- are also among the least energy intensive ways we can spend our time. 

Since these very same activities are, often enough, also the stuff of New Year's resolutions, we're republishing that piece now, to prove that your resolution might have a new, added benefit that you didn't even realize:

If you go to a life coach or therapist seeking to improve your happiness and personal sense of well-being, you're likely to hear some pretty familiar advice.

Sleep more. Spend more time with friends. Exercise more. Find a hobby. Volunteer. Give something back to the community.

Most of us have heard all of this before. But you might be surprised to learn that these "New Year's Resolution" style life changes have a major additional benefit: Spend more time doing them, and you may also dramatically cut your energy use -- and electricity bills.

That's the upshot of new research by Joseph Kantenbacher, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Berkeley whose dissertation research was presented earlier this month at the annual Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change conference in Washington, D.C. The insight on the relationship between happiness-inducing activities and energy savings arose when Kantenbacher analyzed how people actually use their time when they’re not working -- and then identified which of these non-work activities tend to use a lot of energy (per unit of time), and which activities tend to use very little.

The result was this highly revealing figure, which plots how much energy, per hour, various non-work activities burn up. Energy use is divided into three types -- travel energy (gasoline, jet fuel, etc.), household energy (electricity, gas, and so on), and finally "embedded energy," which refers to the amount of energy required to make a particular object, like growing and then processing a piece of food, that is then consumed or used in a particular activity, like eating:

Note that the figure above is for Americans, and the calculations of energy use are based on national averages. We have different dishwashers, different cars, different stoves -- but in general, Kantenbacher can still show that people use more energy cleaning than they do sleeping.

Examined closely, suggests Kantenbacher, the chart is kind of like a roadmap to living a life that is both a lot happier and much healthier -- accompanied with lower electricity bills and a lower carbon footprint.

"A number of the least energy intensive activities that I found -- sleeping, socializing, hobbies, and so forth -- are enriching personally," says Kantenbacher. "So they make people happy to do them, but they also are relatively low consuming activities."

Indeed, let's take some of these activities in sequence, to unpack what the research shows about how they boost happiness and well being (while saving energy):

1. Get More Sleep. In Kantenbacher's research, sleep is the single least energy consumptive activity. And yet many or even most of us don't get enough of it. So the first way to save energy -- while increasing your personal well-being -- may simply be to add an hour or more of sleep.

The benefits are likely to be dramatic. Lack of sleep has also been associated, as my colleague Christopher Ingraham just wrote, with "obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a host of other physical ailments" -- including 80,000 car accidents per year. Furthermore, mounting evidence suggests that sleep may also be vital for clearing out the damaging chemical byproducts of brain activity that, if allowed to linger, can ultimately increase the risk of diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer’s.

But sleep isn't just physically good for you -- more sleep is also associated with more happiness. In one 2006 study, Princeton’s famed social science researcher Daniel Kahneman (author of the mega bestseller Thinking: Fast and Slow) and Alan B. Krueger analyzed the factors that contribute a subjective sense of well being – and one recurrent theme was that the quality of one’s sleep is associated with more life satisfaction.

On top of these health and mental benefits, sleep saves energy simply because when you're sleeping, you (hopefully) aren't running all the other gadgets in your home. This is sort of inherent to the activity, but especially in winter, people can save extra energy while sleeping by using a home heating strategy that employs a programmable or “smart” thermostat to lower the home temperature for the hours of repose. You don’t need the heat then anyway -- you’re under the covers. Programming your thermostat to lower the temperature at night can save 5 to 15 percent on your heating costs.

2. Socialize -- Especially at Home. The second least energy consumptive activity in Kantenbacher's research is socializing. Here, however, there is one important qualification: If you socialize away from home and you have to drive (or use some other form of powered transportation) to get there, then the activity then becomes considerably more energy intensive, simply because transportation is such a major energy user.

Once again, the research literature is pretty clear that having a good social life, and interacting frequently with people, is good for your mental state. To put it bluntly, socializing confers sanity by connecting us with other humans and reinforcing bonds that situate us in communities. In their analysis, Kahneman and Krueger found that “sociability and extraversion," like sleep, was a key factor contributing to people's life satisfaction. In a list of activities that generate positive emotions, meanwhile, they found that “socializing after work” came in second place overall (second only to “intimate relations”). "Socializing at work” and “phone at home” also scored highly.

Kantenbacher's analysis of the electron reducing potential of socializing at home dovetails with other research, including several analyses conducted by Opower, a software company that works with utilities to help them connect with their customers and reduce their energy use. Opower's analyses of residential energy data have shown, fascinatingly, that home energy use decreases at Thanksgiving -- by 5 to 10 percent -- and also during the Super Bowl. In each case, Opower attributes the change to the fact that people are gathered together with family or friends in a single home, and thus, are not using energy at multiple homes.

Here's a figure showing the energy difference that Thanksgiving makes:

And according to Opower's Barry Fischer, other holidays, like Christmas, probably have a similar effect. "When people congregate, they consolidate their energy use. That behavior can have a large-scale, measurable impact on residential energy consumption," says Fischer. "During the Super Bowl and Thanksgiving, we’ve observed sector-wide power demand fall to around 5% below typical levels. One may reasonably expect that other major communal events, like Christmas and the Fourth of July, would produce a similar kind of behavior-driven efficiency."

3. Find a Hobby, Volunteer, or Do Something Spiritually Meaningful. Kantenbacher's third least energy intensive activity group includes hobbies, volunteering, and spiritual activities. Once again, these are all associated with happiness. The Kahneman and Kruger analysis finds that "active involvement in religion" is an important correlate of life satisfaction and being happy -- something research has often shown.

There's also much research tying volunteering to health and well-being -- and of course pursuing hobbies, particularly those that you feel passionate about, can also you happier.

4. Get More Exercise -- Especially Near Home. Kantenbacher's chart also shows that engaging in sports and outdoor activities -- e.g., keeping healthy -- is also a relatively low user of energy. That's especially the case if (once again) you take the transportation component out of the picture by, say, stepping out the door to go for a run, rather than driving to your gym to do so. "The actual activity itself, if you take out the transportation piece, is a very very low consumer of energy," says Kantenbacher of exercise.

It hardly needs arguing that exercise improves your health. The effects are pretty stark: Just 15 minutes of exercise a day, according to one recent study, translates into up to 3 additional years of life expectancy. Kahneman and Kruger’s analysis also finds that “self-reported health” is associated with happiness and life satisfaction, and that the activity of exercising generates high levels of positive affect.

5. Stay Away from Commuting! On the opposite end of the energy use spectrum, meanwhile, are consumptive activities like shopping, and travel. The latter, incidentally, includes perhaps the number one activity that makes people miserable: namely, commuting to work. In Kahneman and Kruger’s analysis, the single least happy activity is actually the "morning commute”; the “evening commute” was merely the third least happy.

So, in sum: There really does seem to be a significant overlap between life changes that will make you more happy, and life changes that will lower your energy use and your gas and electricity bills.

Granted, it is important to underscore that Kantenbacher's research is dissertation research, and it has not been vetted through a peer review process. However, the results are consistent with much other relevant research. For instance, a 2012 study in the UK reached a very similar punchline about British citizens’ energy use and carbon emissions when engaging in various activities.

That study closed with a rather unforgettable line: "The astute reader will not have failed to notice that there is considerable potential for carbon reduction to be achieved by both men and women --  including the authors of this paper -- by getting more sleep."