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Why bike? It makes us happy, researchers say
In our Winter 2015 American Bicyclist magazine, we looked at the "Big Ideas" coming out of the bike movement. Carolyn Szczepanski, League's Executive Editor & Graphic Designer, spoke with researchers from Clemson Unviersity and the University of Pennsylvania about what role bicycling plays in Americans' happiness for this issue. Want American Bicyclist in your mailbox? Join the League today!
Why do we bike?
As advocates, we’re quick to point out the benefits we can measure: It burns calories, reduces air pollution, relieves traffic congestion and costs less than car ownership. But, for those of us who ride, we know there are even bigger upsides to cycling: Biking makes us feel good. And now there’s data to prove it.
Thanks to researchers at Clemson and the University of Pennsylvania, a study released in 2014 made it official: Folks who bike to their destinations are the happiest. Using the American Time Use Survey, collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Eric Morris and Erick Guerra were able to determine the average mood felt by people during different types of travel — and the demeanor of cyclists was significantly better than car drivers, passengers or public transit riders. Talk about a selling point for cycling.
“Happiness is one of the most ancient subjects researchers have thought about: how do you live the good life?” Morris told us. “With modern data gathering, we can finally get some empirical answers with evidence rather than just speculation. Happiness is very widely studied in economics and psychology, but the study of happiness has come late to the field of transportation, urban planning and cities.”
Morris isn’t a bicyclist himself, and, honestly, didn’t go into the research with any sense that cycling would play significantly into the findings. And while the magnitude of the results — the far more positive moods of bicyclists even when controlling for the physical health of the traveler — was surprising, the notion that bikes give us a mental boost is backed by other research.
“First, exercise really elevates your mood,” Morris said. “But also, I think you’re probably made happier on a bicycle because you feel you're achieving something. 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.”
What does that mean for marketing biking to the masses? While cycling has plenty of perks, this type of research helps advocates make the ultimate pitch.
“Bicycling has got a lot going for it,” Morris said. “Finding that people are also quite happy while doing it is one more thing that suggests we should put more effort into promoting it.” Thanks to researchers like Morris we can say with a straight, er, smiling face that bikes make us healthier and happier.