The Happiness Machine

Philosophers are fond of speculating about an imaginary contraption that would enable people to experience only positive feelings. You’d hook your head up to this ‘happiness machine’ and then super-neuroscientists would stimulate your brain so you’d only experience pleasure and well-being. Would you do it? It’s debatable (of course it is, it’s philosophy). Most people worry that the machine would make them miss out on real life – including their real responsibilities and achievements. If you turned on and tuned in you’d drop out forever.

It’s not often that reality is better than fiction, but people are increasingly turning to a real happiness machine that doesn’t require round-the-clock commitment. Just spending twenty minutes on it can give its users a buzz, a glow, that lasts all day. Even in our hyper-technological age, it’s an amazing invention – more amazing still because it was invented long before iPods, virtual reality, Blackberries and TV. So what is this real-life happiness machine? Imagination’s upgrade is... a bicycle.

Consider a familiar scene. You wake up on Monday morning feeling like you’ve got cold soup in your veins, and you groan at the thought of wrestling your way through the throngs of commuters then grinding out the nine-to-five before slogging back home to the divot you left in your unmade bed. And you’ve got to do it again, and again, and again, and again. It’s worse, of course, to have nothing to get out of bed for, but it still doesn’t have to be a chore each day. They say “start as you mean to go on”, and that’s where the happiness machine comes in. The morning cycle ride wakes you up and lifts your spirits, the breeze on your face seeming to brush your worries away like cobwebs. Then when you arrive at work on a bike you feel alert yet calm, focused yet poised, motivated yet contented; in a word, you feel happier – and it’s a mood which stays with you, like momentum, throughout the day. Finally, when the time to leave approaches, you smile as you think of your bike waiting out the back, ready to speed you home through the twinkling lights of London.

There are many explanations for why cycling makes people feel so happy. The most general is that exercise helps to reduce negative emotions. Studies show that physical activity can alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. In a stressful urban environment these problems are all-too-common, but thankfully there’s a ready-made remedy: there’s an opportunity to exercise twice a day, getting to and from work. It’s ironic that commuting is typically such a source of discontent in cities, when it could be the opposite.

Another link between cycling and happiness derives from the health benefits of exercise: “healthy body, healthy mind”, as they say. Studies show that cycling protects against heart disease, stroke, obesity, dementia, diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers, as well as supporting healthy bones, muscles, joints and even sleep patterns. The bicycle is an especially good choice for regular exercise since its impact on the body (in terms of causing or aggravating injuries) is low. No doubt you’ll often hear people (e.g. my mum) exaggerating the risks of cycling, yet experts suggest that it’s no more dangerous than being a pedestrian, and it’s even been estimated by the British Medical Association that when you factor in the dangers associated with physical inactivity, the health benefits of cycling outweigh any risks by 20 to1. The most compelling fact of all is that cyclists, on average, live longer than non-cyclists. In this light, it’s peculiar that non-cyclists seem to be more bothered by all the scaremongering about cycling than cyclists are. But this, too, may boil down to a difference in mood. Psychologists have found that happy people are less affected by negativity than unhappy people. So it may be that cyclists’ happiness insulates them against the alarmism of their less happy colleagues.

You might say that cyclists just tend to be free-spirited – and you’d be right – but this is itself no coincidence. Cycling enlivens the mind, lending its practitioners a vitality that’s a key feature of happiness. The daily cycle ride provides an exhilarating opportunity for reflection and creative thinking. When you’re using public transport or driving in London you tend to shut down your mind so as to defend it against the noise and havoc of its surroundings, but a cyclist in flow has a mind that flows freely too. Countless business gurus have noticed this, recommending a burst of exercise to loosen and sharpen the mind, thus increasing productivity. And it makes biological sense for our brains to become mentally brighter when we exercise – because when human beings evolved, exercise meant being transported to a different environment, which heightened our ancestors’ need to be sensitive to new information and ideas.

Cycling also, of course, makes people physically freer. London’s creaky transport infrastructure is there to facilitate movement but often restricts its users – through congestion, route closures, traffic jams, trains that stop in tunnels and buses that take forever. The great thing about the bicycle is that it lets you choose when, where and which way to go. With an A to Z and a set of wheels you can explore London’s glorious back streets, parks and canals, finding a direct route to your destination, unencumbered by timetables and gridlock. Offering such autonomy and expansiveness, no wonder cycling boosts happiness.

Then there’s the flipside of the cyclist’s autonomy: a sense of security. By this I mean the routine, regularity, reliability and predictability of cycling, compared to the haphazardness of other means of transport in the capital. A bicycle won’t cancel on you, trap you in traffic, make you wait around in the midnight gloom, or have you anxiously biting your nails because the government has told you to amplify your alertness levels to 11. Cycling offers familiarity and certainty: crucial components of a happy mind.

Perhaps the most obvious, but most underappreciated, benefit of cycling is its economy. Unlike the economy, cycling is economical in the sense of being affordable, sustainable and value-for-money. Once you’ve purchased a bike and factored in the costs of maintenance (approximately £80 a year at my local bike shop, or considerably less if you learn to do it yourself), there are huge savings to be made: hundreds of pounds a month in travelcards, newspapers and takeaway coffees for public transport, and even more if you include the costs of driving, such as petrol, maintenance, parking fees and congestion charges. More than ever in a recession, cycling can boost happiness by relieving financial stress: the best things in life are indeed free.

And of course there are huge environmental savings to be made from cycling. A fifth of the carbon we produce in Britain through work comes from commuting, so London would be a far greener place if more people did so by bike (not to mention the other kinds of journey that can be cycled in the capital, like shopping trips, visiting friends and going out). Above all, a cycling city is a cleaner and safer one, with lower levels of noise and air pollution and vastly lower incidences of injury to pedestrians, including children playing in car-filled streets. By being greener, cycling in London offers a higher quality of life for all its citizens.

This last point hints at one of the nicest things about cycling. It’s hard to sum up what brings the most pleasure to cyclists, but perhaps it can be expressed simply as a heightened sense of belonging. Cyclists feel happier because they feel more connected to their surroundings and their fellow Londoners. It’s not just the abstract ethical issue of “doing your bit” for the planet or the greater good; it’s more physical than that. It’s about being out in the open – truly experiencing the city and its eclectic sounds, sights and smells, first-hand – without a windscreen or a grimy window pane between you and the outside world. It’s about chatting to a fellow cyclist at the traffic lights, taking the family on a bike-ride rather than sitting in front of the television, asking a pedestrian for directions, or tinkling a bell instead of blasting a horn. And, before you mention it, cycling’s got nothing to do with any particular political ideology. The connections between cycling, belonging and happiness unify people across the political spectrum. It’s a matter of common sense.

Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and one of Britain’s leading economists, identifies the seven fundamental ingredients of human happiness: health, financial orderliness, job satisfaction, personal autonomy, family relationships, friendlier communities and moral values. Sound familiar? Cycling contributes to the fulfilment of all of these, so it’s no surprise that it brings happiness. Above all, cycling is valuable because it brings a lasting kind of happiness – a mood of contentment that doesn’t fade with time or repetition. This kind of satisfaction is an unusual gift in a modern world that offers mostly fleeting pleasures; styles that go out of fashion, trophy possessions that lose their sheen, communication devices that soon encourage self-absorption. Layard tells us that the ‘secret of happiness’ is to ration such fuels for addiction and seek out more of those ‘good things that never pall’. Any cyclist will tell you that cycling is one of them.

Given the happiness-enhancing qualities of cycling, you can hardly blame cyclists for their keenness to let others in on the deal. Unfortunately, though, enthusiasm and empathising can be all-too-easily mistaken for evangelism and patronising, such is the disillusionment of many a weary traveller in London. Sadder still, the wider effect of such cynicism is a culture in which cyclists often become figures of abuse in the eyes of other road users – this despite the fact that cyclists hardly ever cause harm to pedestrians, never blacken the city’s air or fill a bystander’s face with fumes, and never rattle windows while speeding noisily through sleepy streets. It’s important to recognise the abuse for what it is: intolerance of a minority group. It wouldn’t be acceptable in any other context, and it isn’t when targeted at cyclists.

Sixty years ago cycling made up a third of all the miles travelled by vehicles in Britain, and the country was happier and friendlier. Today, while the capital’s iron lung splutters its miserable, last-gasp disapproval, progressive Londoners are once again getting connected – with real happiness machines.

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