Guest contributor Elly Blue is author of the forthcoming Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy (Microcosm, December 2013).
It's true: biking makes you happy. The science says so.
In the U.S. right now, happiness gets a bad rap as a frivolous luxury for the bored and wealthy. But in reality, it’s an urgent mental health issue, particularly for the growing underclass.
Happiness has a mythos about it in our culture, but a pragmatic way of looking at it is as the absence of stress — or the ability to deal with stress well. Besides making us unhappy, stress aggravates just about every mental and physical disease there is, particularly the chronic ones that we are struggling with in the U.S. today. The vast majority of us regularly feel unduly stressed out, particularly those of us who live in poverty.
In economics, happiness is conveniently measured in units, but economists can’t agree on what those units should measure. Some use secondary factors to estimate happiness in certain countries, in which case a high GDP strongly correlates with happiness — as does, not incidentally, a strong bicycling culture.
When you look at what makes individual people happy — at least individual people in parts of the U.S. — it’s even more revealing. Money seems to make us happy up to a point. What that point is and if it really exists is hotly debated among happiness researchers, but it seems inarguable that the things that really make us happy are strong family and social relationships (uh, especially sex).
The primary causes of unhappiness, on the other hand? Having a bad commute. If you have a job, the drive there is the most stressful thing you’ll do on any given day. And people with particularly long car commutes are more likely to be depressed, have a mental health breakdown, and even get divorced.
Long commutes may also, of course, be tied with poverty. A long commute is not just boring, frustrating, and unhealthy. It costs an increasing amount of money. Gas prices are going up and the average cost of car ownership is closing in on $10,000 a year. Increasingly, more and more families are moving to suburban areas to seek "affordable" housing, but increased transportation costs when you have no option but to drive everywhere means that affordability is often a mirage.
Just how widespread is our happiness problem? Here’s an indicator: One in ten adults in the U.S. meets the diagnostic criteria for depression. Worse, suicide rates have been rising for the past decade, after declining in the nineties — to the point that more people in the U.S. now die each year of suicide than of car crashes. (Perhaps relatedly, there has also been a sharp rise in deaths in recent years that are categorized as “accidental poisoning,” which among adults generally refers to overdoses on prescription and other drugs.)
Poverty and suicide go hand in hand. Sprawl doesn’t help — teen suicides increase significantly in less densely populated areas. This in turn may be related to the increasing poverty of the rural and exurban U.S. and the national economic downturn — both of which have been driven by the end of the (largely suburban) housing bubble.
Urban or suburban, a primary cause of unhappiness is social isolation and the lack of a social support network. A groundbreaking study in 1969 in San Francisco found that adults and children living on busy roads had fewer friends than those who lived on quieter streets. A more recent study in the U.K. looked at adults’ social circles and found similar results. People who live on busier roads had 75% fewer friends than those in quieter neighborhoods.
Why? Among the adults, traffic noise is a major factor, said the study authors, as are health from air pollution, and people’s likelihood of spending time in front of their houses and letting their children play outdoors.
By contrast, bicycling is overwhelmingly likely to make you happy. Study after study shows that even minor amounts of non-intensive bicycling, or similar low-impact exercise, reduces stress, improves mental health and self-esteem, and has an anti-depressant effect. People who bicycle and walk to work are more likely than drivers or transit users to report that they like their commutes. A 2011 study of bicycle commuters found that they are simply happier than people who drive or take transit to work — they have less stress, and report that they feel freedom, relaxation, and excitement in their daily lives.
Bicycling can certainly be stressful as well, especially in heavy traffic without facilities or other people to ride with. This may be partially mitigated by the positive effects of riding. Fortunately, there is a relatively easy and affordable solution to that problem: Make our streets better places to ride so we can all have the opportunity to live better, longer, happier lives.