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The Pursuit of Happiness: Charles Montgomery’s Top 10 Tips on Using Your City as an Engine for Joy

If your city is making you sad, you have a lot to learn from Charles Montgomery.

No, he’s not a psychologist or a life coach. He can’t fix your marriage for you, or help you get rich quick.

He’s a journalist who has spent the past several years investigating the striking, complex, and powerful connection between urban form and human happiness.

He’s here to talk about how the city itself might be making or breaking your happiness. That’s right, he’s here to talk about the happy city.

His message isn’t hard to grasp: from the subway to the streets, the suburbs to the center of the city, the environments we live in and move through every day sculpt the way we think, feel, and behave.

“The city is a behavioral device. Its shapes and systems alter how we feel, how we see each other, and how we act. This would be a terrible thought if it were not for a second truth, which is that the city is malleable. We can change it whenever we wish,” Charles says.

Over the coming weeks at the Lab, Charles will investigate how we can redesign our cities, our minds, and our own behaviors to build a city life that is “not only easier on the planet, but more convivial, more fair, more fun, and more happy.”

But to start out, I thought I’d make it easy by wringing a few quick-fix tips out of Charles—ten easy things you can do yourself right now to turn your city into an engine for joy.

Here’s what he had to say:

1 ) Use your building elevator as an opportunity to start conversation.

“Elevators are notoriously uncomfortable. It is natural to withdraw when people stand in what is normally considered personal space. But we need not be imprisoned by design, and even a casual conversation with strangers has the potential to flood your system with feel-good hormones. Go ahead. Talk about the weather.”

2 ) Move closer to work.

“Studies of transportation and social capital have shown that people who commute long distances have fewer friends. The math is simple: drive less, have more friends.”

3 ) Plant a tree.

“Even exposure to tiny amounts of nature has been shown to reduce stress levels, improve concentration, improve your mood. Even just looking at pictures of nature will help you recover more quickly from illness. This adds a whole new urgency to the notion of going green.”

4 ) Buy the cheapest house on an expensive street.

“Relative status is important. The higher your social standing, the better you feel and the healthier you are. But behavioral economists have found that we don’t just compare our standing to the Joneses next door. We tend to compare ourselves to everyone else in our city. And curiously, we feel a sense of affiliation with our neighbors, so we actually get a status boost when Mr. Jones next door parks a hot car in front of his house.”

5 ) Try to live within a five-minute walk of frequent public transit.

“In Charlotte, North Carolina, people who live near the new light rail line lost an average of five pounds within a year because they started taking the train instead of driving. That few minutes of extra walking a day made the difference. When it comes to fitness, the city designs our behavior and our bodies, so it’s smart to position yourself in the urban system in a way that keeps you fit.”

6 ) If you drive, don’t waste your time searching for the closest parking spot.

“The further you park from your destinations, the fitter you’ll be and the greater the chances of experiencing your neighborhood at a walking pace. Velocity is the key to conviviality—the slower you move, the more likely you are to experience those little moments of intimacy—from glances, to smiles, to quick chats—that can improve your relationships with strangers and the city.”

7 ) Even if you hate New York’s bike lanes, try riding a bike to work.

“International surveys show that people who commute by bike universally enjoy their experience more than people who drive. They report feeling more joy and less anger, fear, frustration, and aversion than any other travelers. Sadly, transit users almost always report having the worst experience. So take a chance on this new experience.”

8 ) Meet your Facebook friends in the flesh.

“Your gut tells you this, and research psychologists have confirmed it: in-person relationships are deeper, more complex, and they involve more commitment and connections with friends and family. There is still no substitute for seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and moving with your friends.”

9 ) Build stillness into your life.

“Noise, especially the unpredictable noise of the city, makes us nasty and unhappy, even after we stop noticing it. So if you can’t find a refuge, you might want to insulate your walls and soundproof your windows.”

10 ) Practice being nice to strangers.

“Being kind is not just good for other people. My favorite neuroeconomist, Paul Zak, has shown that acts of altruism can flood your system with a happy hormone known as oxytocin that can keep you feeling warm and fuzzy for as long as 20 minutes. So help little old ladies across the street. Merge politely in traffic. Open doors for people. Feel the buzz and pass it on.”

I challenge each of you to try at least one of these tips, then come back to the blog and tell us about your experience below in the comments section. Did it work?

Or better yet, suggest your own tips and see what Charles, and the science of happiness, has to say about them.

. . .

Photo: used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) License from mermaid99

  • Laurencom

    Using a Canvas bag at Whole Foods and walking with it back home makes me happy…as it is Sustainable.

  • Peggy

    Thats why Hamburg, Germany and Copenhagen, Denmark are the most livable cities, lots of green, many cyclists, friendly inhabitants.
    But I’m not agree with elevator talk  … don’t speak to me. I have to talk (with strangers) all day. I’ m lucky, if I can remain silent even with strangers sometimes…

    • Anonymous

      I feel like this is the reason so many of us wear headphones in the streets. Yes, its great to interact with strangers, but it’s nice to be able to choose when you do it. Especially in a place like New York that is so crowded all the time, we don’t have as much choice about how much space we have to ourselves in the public sphere – everyone is in our face all the time! So we react by shutting everything, and everyone out. But I think this is a shame…

      Charles, can you suggest a way that city design could help solve this problem? How can we have more choice about our interactions with strangers in cities as crowded and overwhelming as NYC?

    • Charles Montgomery

      Hi Peggy. Your comment on elevators illustrates perfectly our challenge in cities. Social contact is good for us, but we need to feel free to back away and be alone when we need to. So elevators are a special challenge. Let’s make a deal. If you only give me a one-word answer to my comment about the weather when we meet in an elevator, I will take this as a sign that you need some space.

  • Anonymous

     A couple more reactions to this, from the BG Lab’s Facebook wall:

    Dana Marie: I don’t have a job!! maybe that’s why the city gets me down

    John Steward: Great ideas!

    Mary Holmes Dague: Brilliant and a great example of common sense we rarely think about.

    Mono Lely: I chatter incessantly in elevators – and get a lot of smiles going – it is good fun!

  • MyCityWay

    These are great ideas. Being nice (like giving up your subway seat or holding a door open) works wonders in NYC. Sometimes people are caught off guard with such random acts of kindness, because usually we’re all rushing around in our own little worlds not paying attention to each other.

  • Janette

    After a day at the lab. We hopped on the Subway and headed back to the upper east side. As we were sitting in the subway car, I looked around and realized that the study we did “Your brain on commuting” needed the people sitting next to us and across from us to partake in the Lab. I just openly started discussing this and had several commuters give their thoughts. What a wonderful subway ride it became as we conversed with total strangers. Acts of kindness such as giving up a seat and making sure someone did not leave without their umbrellas started popping up in that 20 minute commute.

    And yes, by the way biking is one of the best forms of commuting. We hope that the rest of the USA could grasp this ideal and help make our world a better and happier place.