26 December 2007

Cycling and the Philosophy of Happiness:

Sydney University is providing a new course in philosophy next year (2008) called “The philosophy of happiness”. My previous philosophy lecturer gave us a briefing about the new course citing some studies that have been done. Now I’m not really sure how they measure happiness (this itself could be seen as a large flaw in the study!), but essentially they tried to find variables that affected long term “happiness” (whatever that is!). For instance researchers discovered that if one bought a larger house they were actually more unhappy for the first 6 months (due to the stresses of moving and so on), but were then happier from 6 to 18 months later (as they enjoyed their newer, bigger house); But after 18 months they had seemingly adapted to their bigger house and were now identically happy (or unhappy as the case may be) as they had originally been in the old house. A similar thing happened when moving to a smaller house, except that the occupants were unhappy until 18 months after moving (as the house was smaller, more cramped etc). It seemed that regardless of what happened, after 18 months people had adjusted and happiness went back to a “normal” level.

Several such studies seemed to imply that happiness seems to be relative, and adjusts as such. Thus something can make you happy, but most likely it will only be short lived. However, one variable they found which made you happier long term, was commuting time. The shorter your commuting time (for this study I believe it was to and from work) the happier you are, presumably as it gives you more time in the day to do things, and maybe you live in a close nit community etc. So in the case of commuting time it was found that individuals were happier both immediately after reducing commuting times as well as much further down the track (that is to say 18 months later and beyond).

Now the lecturer who told us this (Professor David Bradon Mitchell, a fabulous lecturer) happens to be a cyclist. So as the class filtered out after the lecture I went down and approached him, with a question set in my mind. I essentially went up to him and asked “But what about cycling?”

“Cycling!” he said, “Well that’s a whole different kettle of fish.” (Please note that those weren’t the lecturer’s exact words, although the meaning was identical. I suppose I am taking my artistic license a little far here by paraphrasing adlib!) We then proceeded to both talk about how as cyclists we were happier to have both exercise and travel time rolled into one, thus saving time. This in turn enabled us to spend more time on other pursuits such as leisure, which helps to make for a happier life. Also we get the many health benefits of exercise and as we both lived in the inner west (although he is now in Newtown and so close that he doesn’t really ride, as he can simply walk) we could even cycle around the city faster than cars and public transport in peak hour and heavy traffic.

Thus from a time saving point of view commuting by bike (this is of course again within the context of the city and inner suburbs) can indeed help to increase your happiness. So cycling is good for your health, your pocket and your happiness is there anything more we can learn from this? Yes, there is one other important lesson! As our rather humourous lecturer said in concluding this lecture “If there’s one thing you can learn from this whole philosophy course its don’t move out to the suburbs to buy a bigger house!”

I suppose another way cycling makes me happy is that I know I’m doing something good for me and the environment and thus those around me. I like helping people, and by cycling I feel I help everyone, albeit it in the smallest way. One person can really only create so much change. If you’re a completely average person without great finances or great intelligence or great determination or great luck or some other such quality how can you possibly completely change the world? Well as far as I’m concerned you can, sort of, but only within reason. By cycling every day I keep myself fit and healthy so that I can help others. I also do not create pollution for others to have to inhale or the planet to have to absorb. Lastly, and in some ways most importantly, by riding as often as I do I might make an important impression on some people who see me riding. I tell my friends, co workers and family of the benefits of cycling. So far I’ve got one friend cycling around, and I hope to convert many more.

The more people that start cycling the more people will see people cycling and the more other people will begin to cycle. In turn the more demand for cycling products and cycling infrastructure will increase and hopefully this demand will lead to greater research and development into both these sectors. This really puts the moral impetus on an individual’s action, a good thing to, as all of societies greatest accomplishments have ultimately been a joint effort. It really does create a positive snowball effect which gains momentum. The Sydney morning herald mentioned in an article that the amount of cyclists in Sydney has increased by 50% in just three short years (the article was published on the 8th of October 2007). That’s an amazing amount and clearly shows that some positive change is taking place in today’s society. If you wish to check it out (and some great reasons about how bike riding isn’t as dangerous as people think it is due to an increase in cyclists themselves) then see the following link:


Happiness is an interesting little topic, and a rather important one in my view. I will be sure to write more on the pursuit of happiness later in life, and if I do happen to study “The Philosophy of Happiness” as a course at Sydney Uni next year I’ll be sure to write more about the topic. So until then give yourself a piece of happy pie and savour the wait.

1 comment:

CG Walters said...

Samuel, I think and regular exercise is a benefit--I rather like walking the mountains.
I understand that when
you exercise regularly, it regulates stress hormones like cortisol, and promotes the release of endorphins (morphine-like substances that your body naturally releases when you exercise).
Many blessing and good cyclying to you this new year...

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