Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Secret of Happiness

I've just read an article on Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. "We might not be able to fix the economy. But we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier."

One experiment was to have a day of a total car ban. The 'car free' day was the first day in 4 years that nobody was killed in traffic. Hospital admissions were down, smog thinned, and people were feeling more optimistic about life. All from just one day without cars.

Why does better city design, and fewer cars, give such a boost to our happiness? The article had some stats on that - and it seems that we've over-valued the role of money in happiness.

  • The British got 40% richer from 1993 to 2012, but the rate of psychiatric disorders and neuroses grew.
  • Londoners are among the least happy people in the UK, despite the city being the richest region in the UK.
  • The more connected we are, the less likely we are to experience heart attacks, strokes, cancer and depression. Connected people sleep better at night. They live longer. They consistently report being happier.
  • People who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce.
  • People who live in car‑dependent neighbourhoods are much less trusting of other people.
  • Longer commutes mean lower life-satisfaction. A person with a one-hour commute has to be paid 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. For a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.

So why is driving so bad? So bad that being freed from it is the equivalent of falling in love - or getting a 40% pay rise?

"Driving in traffic is harrowing for both brain and body. The blood of people who drive in cities is a stew of stress hormones. The worse the traffic, the more your system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the fight-or-flight juices that, in the short-term, get your heart pumping faster, dilate your air passages and help sharpen your alertness, but in the long-term can make you ill. Brain researchers found that peak-hour travellers suffered worse stress than fighter pilots or riot police facing mobs of angry protesters."

Apparently, it's the mobility of walking, running or riding that makes commuting enjoyable.

"We were born to move. Immobility is to the human body what rust is to the classic car. Stop moving long enough, and your muscles will atrophy. Bones will weaken. Blood will clot. You will find it harder to concentrate and solve problems. Immobility is not merely a state closer to death: it hastens it."

Cyclists report feeling "connected to the world around them" in a way that's not possible in a sealed vehicle. Their journeys are "sensual and kinesthetic".

So how did Bogotá's experiment go?

It made life better for almost everyone. Commuting times fell by a fifth. The streets were calmer. The accident rate halved, as did the murder rate, even as the country as a whole got more violent. There was better air quality. Bogotáns got healthier. The city experienced a spike in feelings of optimism. People believed that life was good and getting better.

To find out more, read the article, or get the book it comes from - "Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design" by Charles Montgomery.

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