12 Little Anecdotes from ‘Happy City’ by Charles Montgomery

Written by Josh Papernick

1. A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a forty-five-minute commute were 40 percent more likely to divorce

2. A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent 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

    • (Stutzer, Alois, and Bruno S. Frey, “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 2008: 339–66.)


3. Seventy percent of American car trips are shorter than two miles, which translates to about an easy 10-minute bike ride.


4. Now the poorest fifth of American families pour more than 40 percent of their income into owning and maintaining cars


5. Researchers for Hewlett- Packard convinced volunteers in England to wear electrode caps during their commutes and found that whether they were driving or taking the train, peak-hour travelers suffered worse stress than fighter pilots or riot police facing mobs of angry protesters.


6. Life satisfaction is strongly influenced by location

7. Self-reported happiness correlates with a lot of things that money cannot buy.

    • the most important psychological effect of the city is the way in which it moderates our relationships with other people.
    • Economists love to turn relationships into numbers. Helliwell produced this: if 10 percent more people thought they had someone to count on in life, it would have a greater effect on national life satisfaction than giving everyone a 50 percent raise.
    • But it is not only our close relationships that count. Our trust in neighbors, police, governments, and even total strangers has a huge influence on happiness—again, much more than income does.


8. The seemingly safe and healthy dispersed suburb offers systems of living that can reasonably be considered lethal. It is the sickness that comes from doing nothing.

    • Public health experts have even invented a new word—obesogenic, or fat-making—to describe low-density neighborhoods. Just living in a sprawling city has the effect of four years of aging.
    • Lawrence Frank’s urban-health studies show towns that are so unwalkable that people get fatter just living there.


9. As much as we complain about other people, there is nothing worse for mental health than a social desert. A study of Swiss cities found that psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia, are most common in neighborhoods with the thinnest social networks. Social isolation just may be the greatest environmental hazard of city living—worse than noise, pollution, or even crowding.


10. What is crucial for healthy living is not quantity, but regular exposure, daily doses of nature. So the trick is in finding ways to infuse nature, and nature complexity, into denser places.

    • Hospital patients with views of nature need less pain medication and get better faster than those with views of, say, brick walls.
    • Even simulating a view of nature can help. Heart surgery patients exposed to pictures of trees, water, and forests are less anxious and report less severe pain than those who have to gaze at abstract art all day.
    • Dental patients get less stressed out on days when nature murals are hung on the waiting-room wall. Students do better on tests when nature is within visual range.
    • The natural view is now being prescribed for some of the most stressful built environments.


11. The big-boxing of a city block harms the physical health of people living nearby, especially the elderly. Seniors who live among long stretches of dead frontage have actually been found to age
more quickly than those who live on blocks with plenty of doors, windows, porch stoops, and destinations.

    • Because supersize architecture and blank stretches of sidewalk push their daily destinations beyond walking distance, they get weaker and slower, they socialize less outside the home, and they volunteer less


12. public health researchers have discovered that designs that lower greenhouse gas emissions also make entire societies healthier. The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, argued that whether you are in London or Mumbai, interventions to make walking and cycling safe and comfortable are radically more effective at bringing down emissions than the technological fixes being pushed by the transportation industry.

    • This is because every journey we make burns some form of energy—usually some form of fossil fuel—and there is an inverse relationship between the carbon we burn in our machines and the food calories we burn when choosing how to get around