Giddy up: How to make commuting a happier experience!

April 17, 2018

By: Kaitlyn Bailey
MSc, University of British Columbia

Just as there are scientists searching for a cure for cancer, there are also scientists whose life’s work it is to uncover the secrets of living a happier life.

Two such “happiness researchers” from Harvard University wanted to know which daily activities make people the happiest, and which make people the least happy(1). To test their question they developed a smartphone app that sent their participants texts randomly throughout the day asking:

  1. How are you feeling right now?
  2. What are you doing right now?

The results? One of the least enjoyable activities that people reported during their day was commuting/travelling.

The average Canadian spends about 52-minutes a day just commuting to and from their workplace(2). When you include other trips this is likely more than an hour for most people.

But there’s good news, there is a way to transform this unhappy activity into a happiness boosting one. Can you guess what it is?

That’s right –use your bike! Research shows that compared to drivers, car passengers, and public transit users, bicyclist commuters are the happiest(3). Imagine, instead of being frustrated sitting in slow-moving traffic or crammed up against a stranger riding public transit, you are gliding by, breathing fresh air and getting some exercise (perhaps not surprisingly exercise was one of the activities that people rated as the happiest during their day).

You might think that riding your bike to work is only for people who have a short commute, and therefore their increased happiness is derived from their shorter commute time and not the fact that they are riding their bike. Not so! In a large study of 18 000 people, scientists found that when people switched from driving to walking or cycling to work, they were happier even though their commute was now longer(4).

Why does biking make people feel happy? No one has a concrete answer but most scientists believe it’s a combination of things. Here are a few educated guesses:

  • Exercise. We know that exercise improves mood and decreases depression and anxiety(5). I call it “the endorphin effect”.
  • Outside. Whether it’s due to a boost of Vitamin D from the sun or because you are breathing fresh air, studies confirm that simply being outside makes people happier(6)!
  • Mindfulness. Biking typically requires concentration on what you’re doing –especially when you are riding alongside traffic. Being focused on the present moment has a positive effect on mood even when the activity you’re focusing on is one you don’t like(1).  
  • Connection. A researcher from UBC did a study in Vancouver about people’s experiences using different types of transportation. He found that cyclists report feeling much more connected during their commute, compared to people driving cars who felt alienated(7). Having a sense of connection is important for happiness.
  • Childhood memories. For many people, biking brings back pleasant, memories of childhood when life was simpler and bicycles were their key to freedom.

These are just some examples of why biking makes people happy but if you want to see for yourself register today for Bike to Work & School Week and make a commitment to yourself to give it a try. You’ll be happy you did!

1. Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330: 932.

2. https://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/171129/dq171129c-eng.htm

3. Morris & Guerra (2014). Mood and mode: does how we travel affect how we feel? Transportation, supplementary material. doi:10.1007/s11116-014-9521-x

4. Martin, Goryakin & Suhrcke (2014). Does active commuting improve psychological wellbeing? Longitudinal evidence from eighteen waves of the British Household Panel Survey. Preventive Medicine, 69: 296-303.

5. Powers, Asmundson & Smits (2015) Exercise for mood and anxiety disorders: The state-of-the science. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 44: 237-239.

6. Keniger, Gaston, Irvine & Fuller (2013). What are the benefits of interacting with nature? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(3): 913-935.

7. Nixon (2014). Speeding capsules of alienation? Social (dis)connections amongst drivers, cyclists and pedestrians in Vancouver, BC. Geoforum, 54: 91-102.

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