Have you ever experienced Road Happiness?

Road Happiness is a sense of well-being or joy induced while moving from point A to point B. If that sounds strange to you, chances are, you are more familiar with its counterpart. So, let’s start with the more known concept. 

Road Rage is basically an aggressive or angry behaviour exhibited by a driver of a road vehicle, ranging from offensive gestures to homicide. The term originated in the late ’80s in Los Angeles, one of the car-centric capitals of the World. But Goofy Motor Mania, a cartoon made by Walt Disney Productions in 1950, tells us that the problem was there long before they coined the expression. 

Since then, Road Rage has been depicted countless times in books, movies, songs and many other mediums. From Pink Panther TV episode “Think Before You Pink” (1969) to Offspring song “Bad Habit” (1994) to Dilbert TV episode “The Takeover” (1999).

Interestingly, Road Happiness is a much more natural state than Road Rage. Wait a minute. If Road Happiness is more natural how come we never hear about it? This is one example of how we went astray in the last century.  Our evolutionary process ensures that what is necessary for our survival on a daily basis gets rewarded. We are hardwired to derive pleasure from food, warmth, reproduction and mobility because those are some of the basic needs of every single person on the planet. This is exactly what happens when we choose a transportation mode that is coherent with the physical, mental and emotional capacities we developed as human beings over millennia. 

The Soft Science of Road Happiness

These days, cycling is the transportation mode most conducive to Road Happiness. Different research studies from Portland State University’s urban planning school, the Oregon Transportation Research & Education Consortium, Clemson, and  the University of Pennsylvania found that bike commuters are the happiest commuters of all.

“Major factors that dragged down well-being scores included traffic congestion (non-existent for bike riders), crowded transit vehicles, safety concerns (especially for bikers), and travel times longer than 40 minutes (for auto drivers only).”

Jonathan Maus

Notice that the bicycle issue – safety – is not inherent to the bike itself, a vehicle that has speed and mass compatible to the human scale. More about that later.

The Hard Science of Road Happiness

Even though many of those studies are based on self-reporting or behaviour observation, we can find hard evidence in neurobiology as well. We are constantly learning about how our brain works and happiness is a complex system that overlaps other neural networks associated with motivation and pleasure for example. We will focus on what is considered by many, the main elements, the four happy hormones: Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins known as D.O.S.E.

Happy Hormone #1: Dopamine
Dopamine helps regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. It also enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. As the “feel-good hormone”, dopamine is associated with feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation, concentration, pleasure, and hope. There are a few natural ways of boosting our dopamine levels 

Physical Activity

Exercise can improve mood and may boost dopamine levels when performed regularly. Two daily bike rides (to and from work) is a great way to incorporate some exercise in our routine. That is also the reason why a long commute doesn’t affect our mood negatively if we are biking. On the contrary, the longer distance might make the cyclist happier.

Autonomy

Accomplishing something on our own boosts dopamine too. Getting from A to B using our own energy certainly leaves us with a feeling of accomplishment, especially if it is a long distance or there are obstacles along the way. Remember, we evolved to be able to move and be rewarded for it. 

“It’s been shown that people don’t like tasks that are way too hard for them — but they do like a task that is difficult and they can just accomplish it. From bicycling, you get that sense of mastery and proving to yourself that you’re skilled, rather than just sitting and riding in a bus or a car.”

Eric A. Morris – Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning, Clemson University

Social interaction

With the overall decline in socialization, it is no wonder we see mental health problems steadily increasing. Research finds that psychotic disorders are more prevalent in neighbourhoods with a thin social network.

“Social interactions are no doubt important for our mental health and play a role in conditions such as schizophrenia and depression. Interestingly, these disorders are also associated with dysfunction of dopamine neurons.”

Mark Ungless, Neurophysiology Group – Imperial College London

For obvious reasons, extroverts tend to have higher levels of dopamine. But, bike commuting offers countless opportunities for social interactions that even introverts would be comfortable with. Fleeting smiles, nods and waves from a distance are small acts that go a long way when performed daily. They are the first step to creating a collective sense of belonging with our community.


Happy Hormone #2: Oxytocin

Over time, those brief gestures with strangers might turn into weak ties. Their importance is widely recognized today:

“Surprisingly, these ‘weak ties’ … can serve important functions such as boosting physical and psychological health and buffering against stress and loneliness, researchers have found.”

Psychological News

Oxytocin is dubbed the love hormone. It is usually known as the hormone released when women give birth or breastfeed a baby. Oxytocin also plays a major role in social bonding. It is associated with affection, trust, cooperation, generosity and the “warm/fuzzy” feeling. Physical touch and eye-to-eye contact increase oxytocin levels.

The chemical response is part of the reason why those fleeting daily encounters eventually turn into weak ties and possibly into strong ties. Something that Jane Jacobs, one of the most important urbanists of all time, called street ballet and spent a lifetime fighting for it.

In my personal experience, that is generally how I feel during my commute and I decided to run a little experiment. For three months I logged how many times I had a positive social interaction with someone. The result: on average my daily commute took 28.3 minutes and I received (or rather provoked) 8.7 smiles. That means a smile every three minutes.

I also recorded some of the interactions beyond smiles. Here some examples of casual conversations I have during my commute with complete strangers:

What do you do if it starts raining? – Senior lady in a bus stop

Wow! You are brave! – Woman going downhill while I biked uphill hauling my three kids

Good morning! That is a father! – Middle aged man on the sidewalk wearing a suit and a smile while I biked with my kids.

This is brilliant! Are they your kids or do you get paid for this? – Young couple at a red light driving their little daughter to school 

Happy Hormone #3: Serotonin
Serotonin may be the best-known happiness chemical because it’s the one that antidepressant medication primarily addresses. Sunshine and exercise are the two most common ways of promoting the release of serotonin.

Serotonin is also considered the molecule of self-esteem and belonging which is directly related to the first two hormones shown here. Again, being self-propelled creates a sense of achievement boosting self-esteem. 

More opportunities social interaction is frequently cited as one of the many benefits of cycling which in turn increases belonging. Ironically, non-cyclists often mention lack of safety, based on their perception of lack of trust in strangers, as one of the main barriers to start cycling in the first place.

Once again, my personal experience aligns with the research. Most of my interactions showed goodwill and increased familiarity with strangers overtime:

Excuse me sir! You lost your jacket. – someone driving by when my jacket fell off my bike

I think you lost one! – Senior couple on foot at an intersection, commenting on the absence of one of my kids.

This is the kind of relationship that cycling can foster and that creates a very special experience for the bike commuter: 

But what I find most remarkable is when there’s congestion on the bike route, it’s more fun. It’s more joyful because we’re exchanging comments, glances, and flirtations. Honestly, that route, in particular, has made my commute the single happiest part of my day.

Charles Montgomery – Happy City International Consultancy

On the other hand, a study of neighbourhoods mentioned in the Happy City book found that neighbourhood social ties could be predicted simply by counting how many people depended on cars to get around. More drivers = less social ties.

An experiment using streets with similar characteristics, except for the amount of car traffic, demonstrates how motorized vehicles can be detrimental to neighbourhood social ties, sense of belonging and knowledge about your own street. Livable Streets, a book about the study, was published in 1981.

Happy Hormone #4: Endorphins

Endorphins are your body’s opioids. The name endorphins translate into self-produced morphine. These brain chemicals get released in response to pain and stress. They help to alleviate anxiety and depression.

There are two basic ways to help your body release endorphins: aerobic/anaerobic exercise and simply spending time outdoors getting exposure to sunlight. You will have both regularly commuting by bicycle.

“Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling.”

James E Starrs

The surging “second wind” and euphoric “runners high” during and after physical activity are the results of endorphins. But we don’t need much, a study shows a significant reduction in depression among clinically depressed subjects with as little as 30 minutes of walking on a treadmill for 10 days in a row. 

The link between exercise and endorphin release is pretty well-known. If you use a bicycle for transportation you don’t need to find the time (and sometimes money) for a daily exercise. It’s embedded in your lifestyle. Saving time and money will probably make you even happier.

There are many other indirect benefits from a healthier lifestyle that will have a positive effect on your happiness. Research from bike to work programs shows that regular cycling increases productivity, reduces illnesses and sick leaves. This, in turn, generates significant savings for the organizations. All good reasons to make you even happier.

As we saw before, regular physical activity can also increase your dopamine and serotonin levels, making it a great option to boost your overall D.O.S.E. 

Other happy hormones

As we saw at the beginning, happiness is a complex network and there are many other chemicals involved in this process. There are at least two other hormones that are worth a mention.

Anandamide

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is the essential molecular system responsible for maintaining homeostasis in all vertebrate species.  As of now, the ECS is responsible for functions including relaxation, eating, sleeping, forgetting, and protecting. 

Scientific studies show that anandamide levels are also elevated shortly after exercise.  This is a fast and free way to naturally encourage homeostasis and improve your mood.

The most popular endocannabinoid is Anandamide. The name is taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “joy, bliss, delight”, and amide. Research suggests that low levels of these molecules are associated with chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.

Adrenaline (epinephrine)

A surge of adrenaline makes us feel very alive. This jolt can be healthy in small doses. It can be an antidote for boredom, malaise, and stagnation. That little push out of our comfort zone is key to maximizing our human potential.

An “adrenaline rush” comes in times of distress or facing fearful situations. It can be triggered on demand by doing things that terrify us or being thrust into a situation that feels dangerous causing stress.

However, it has the opposite effect if it becomes part of our daily experience. Even small sustained levels of adrenaline can be very damaging. The daily surge causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. This is a too familiar experience for those of us stuck in a car in a traffic jam or afraid of getting hit by a car while riding a bike.

Conclusion

It is the interrelation between the internal and external factors presented here that creates the condition called Road Happiness.

You can’t buy happiness but you can buy a bike [and ride it every day] and that’s pretty close.

Anon

Unfortunately, as we design more and more car-oriented cities, our daily experience is increasingly associated with one of those hormones: Adrenaline. Researchers from Hewlett-Packard found that peak-hour drivers in the UK suffered worse stress than fighter pilots or riot police facing mobs of angry protesters.

…our streets are designed to make us unhappy.

Colin Browne from the Washington Post

Stress is highly correlated with driving but also affects cyclists. Remember the one factor that brings down the happiness level of cyclists? Lack of safety or the perception of lack of safety. In both cases, drivers and cyclists, the stress is generated by motorized traffic itself that causes congestion when it is not moving, creates high-risk situations when it is moving and inhibits physical activity in both cases.

Cycling is the most pleasant commuter experience, but if we want to make this a reality for everyone we need to design cities for all ages and abilities, not only for the brave. And more people biking actually makes cycling safer. The phenomenon known as safety in numbers is observed wherever there is a spike in cycling.

Lass Lindholm works for the traffic department in Copenhagen. After pointing that on a typical morning commute more people would travel by bicycle than by any other mode of transport she adds:

They aren’t choosing to cycle because of any deep-seated altruism or commitment to the environment; they are motivated by self-interest. They just want to get themselves from A to B and it happens to be easier and quicker to do it on a bike.

The secrets of the world’s happiest cities

If we want to live in a Happy City instead of a Rage City, we should start paying close attention to Road Happiness episodes and learn how to design cities that are conducive to happiness. A city that aligns choices that are good for the individual with choices that are good for society.

Obviously, prevention is preferable to early intervention; moreover, although population strategies are important, they are ideally supplemented with preventive interventions that can be used over long periods of time… Another reason for pursuing nonpharmacologic methods of increasing serotonin arises from the increasing recognition that happiness and well-being are important, both as factors protecting against mental and physical disorders and in their own right

How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs

A basic recipe for  urban happiness, according to Charles Montgomery, includes a city that maximizes joy, leads toward health, builds resilience against crises, promotes freedom to choose where to live/work and enables us to strengthen the bonds among family, friends and strangers. 

The first step is to acknowledge road happiness as a condition and as a goal. The second step is to work towards that goal. Observing, tracking and implementing measures that foster road happiness and a happy city. As we saw here, cycling is the ideal vehicle for road happiness. It is no wonder that a happy city is a bike-friendly city!


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