The Feasibility of Degrowth: Long-term Perspectives on Subjective Well-being

By Hikaru Komatsu & Jeremy Rappleye.

Degrowth is gaining increasing attention as a potential solution to global environmental challenges, including climate change. This paradigm shift involves an intentional social, economic, and cultural transformation, redirecting the focus from relentless economic growth to securing the well-being of both humans and nature. Despite the promise of degrowth, concerns persist regarding its feasibility. Skeptics question its viability based on the common assumption that a decline in economic standards will lead to lower rates of happiness and well-being (Milanovic, 2021).

In response, degrowth advocates have countered that economic growth does not always correlate with improved subjective well-being in high-income countries (Kallis et al., 2018). Still, skeptics insist that a decrease in economic standards could result in a decline in subjective well-being, citing the less successful adaptation to loss as compared to gain, as evident during economic recessions.

An essential element missing from the current debate is a long-term perspective on the dynamics of decline. Degrowth involves a prolonged process spanning decades. Filling this gap, two studies have explored the long-term responses of subjective well-being to sustained economic decline in Japan and Greece, the only available cases of high-income countries experiencing these prolonged downturns (Komatsu et al., 2022; Komatsu and Rappleye, 2024).

These studies revealed that subjective well-being initially declined but eventually returned to the original level within two decades, despite the absence of economic recovery. This suggests that a decline in economic standards does not necessarily lead to a lasting decrease in subjective well-being. Notably, Japan and Greece unintentionally exemplify the feasibility of degrowth.

What contributed to the recovery of subjective well-being levels in Greece and Japan? While further research is needed, initial finding suggests that the crisis response efforts of the Japanese and Greek governments, industries, and citizens unwittingly aligned with proposals made by degrowth theorists. These proposals include downsizing the production and consumption of less essential elements, implementing measures to prevent an increase in social inequality, and developing non-governmental collective initiatives that improve well-being.

Despite a significant reduction in overall production and consumption, sectors such as agriculture, health, and social work were least impacted in both countries. Economic downscaling led to a rise in unemployment, disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups. However, both countries implemented measures to prevent an increase in social inequality, supporting vulnerable groups and reducing wage gaps between full-time and part-time employees. Indeed, both countries witnessed no long-term increase in the Gini index. Additionally, both countries also saw the emergence of non-governmental collective initiatives working to improve well-being, including social kitchens, social medical centers, and alternative markets.

The institutional transformation was accompanied by broader cultural shifts in both Japan and Greece. In Japan, there has been a clear shift in the concept of happiness from individual achievement to interpersonal, harmonious relationships. The decline prompted people to (re)learn how to find happiness within human relationships and the relationship between humans and nature. A similar cultural shift occurred in Greece, marked by an increase in interpersonal trust after the economic crisis, with a shift from individuality and competition to mutuality and cooperation.

While casual observations support these hypotheses, further in-depth investigations into institutional and cultural changes in these countries are necessary. Some related studies have begun to emerge (Figueiredo et al., 2020; Komatsu et al., 2022; Uchida and Rappleye, 2024), but more research is needed. There is a need to identify key factors that enabled Japan and Greece to avoid a long-term decline in subjective well-being. The identification of these factors will aid in designing policies that intentionally facilitate a degrowth transition – a trend that will inevitably gain momentum as the Anthropocene crisis intensifies. Such research projects will require international, interdisciplinary, and comparative collaborations, a realm where the field of degrowth scholarship has increasingly excelled. Indeed, degrowth scholarship can lead in all these directions, whilst leading in the wider paradigm shift away from outmoded 20th century models of growth and human well-being.


The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the author.

Hikaru Komatsu is Principal Researcher at the social venture On-the-Slope in Kyoto, Japan and Adjunct Associate Professor at the National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan. Jeremy Rappleye is Professor at the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong SAR.