Monday, November 4, 2013

Do you live in a happy city?

I happened across an article, "The secrets of the world's happiest cities." (Guardian, UK)

Intriguing! I scanned it - when Provo, Utah wasn't listed by name, I just about dismissed it outright.

(That's a joke! Provo, home of BYU, is located in a place the locals call "Happy Valley." But despite my occasional visits there, it's never struck me as happier than any other small city. I'd rather live in Boise.)

What would make a city "happy"? Prosperity / lack of crippling poverty? Health? Lots of bowling alleys and bars? A sweeeet mall?

According to the article, the common denominator of the happiest cities has nothing to do with the wealth of its inhabitants, or lots of name-brand shopping, or even its super-smart politicians. Rather, it is based on an urban design that minimizes auto-dependence and maximizes opportunities for its citizens to enjoy the outdoors and "connect with others."

It describes the transformation of an unlikely city - Bogota, Colombia, "a city with a reputation for kidnapping and assassination." The author followed the reform-minded mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, as he rode his bike partway across town to meet his son after school and accompany him home. Mayor Peñalosa raised eyebrows when he "declared war on cars," scrapping an ambitious roadway expansion plan and directing the funds toward expanding bike infrastructure, making open spaces more user-friendly with sidewalks, parks, etc. But he hasn't been thrown out of office, and his citizens seem happy with the evolution. (Maybe TOO happy - at the end of the story it says the facilities are stretched to the breaking point because of their popularity, but funding hasn't kept up with demand.)

Some interesting and provocative quotes from the story:

"If one was to judge by sheer wealth, the last half-century should have been an ecstatically happy time for people in the US and other rich nations such as Canada, Japan and Great Britain. And yet the boom decades of the late 20th century were not accompanied by a boom in wellbeing. The British got richer by more than 40% between 1993 and 2012, but the rate of psychiatric disorders and neuroses grew."

"The more connected we are to family and community, 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."

"A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce. People who live in monofunctional, car‑dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work."

Two Zurich economists "found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, 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."

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist: "Most good and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than to things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house, because the house is exactly the same size every time. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery."

Speaking for myself - I dislike a 30-minute driving errand, on account of sitting in traffic, etc. (Granted, I'm not used to that treatment.) I'd probably become homicidal if I had to do a 45-minutes-each-way, 5-day-a-week car commute! Homicidal is unhappy... right?

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