Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Do Cities + Running = Being Happier?

Do running and cities make you happier? The short answer is yes, obviously, or I wouldn't be writing this blog. As someone who hasn't been able to run or utilize and experience cities in a way I'm used to, I can attest to the increased level of irritable and grouchy. I'm definitely happier when running and cities are an integral part of my daily life.

I'm currently reading Happy City by Charles Montgomery, a book that examines happiness based on where one lives. It doesn't take long to realize that living in suburban (or exurban - beyond the suburbs) neighborhoods without places to which one can walk makes people less happy. They spend more time in their cars and have less human interaction. Even reading the anecdotes in the book of people driving 50-60 miles one way to work every day make my skin crawl.

Charles Montgomery looks a little like one of my fav country singers, Dierks Bentley. That is a huge compliment, by the way.
I started thinking about the times in my adult life when I've been quite unhappy, and long commutes always played a part. In 2002 I was driving 60 miles one day from Killeen, Texas to Baylor University for my third year of law school. I HATED it. It's a straight shot up I-35 to Waco, and I rarely encountered traffic. But getting up and knowing I had to make that drive always put me in a bad mood. Getting home later in the evening and knowing I still had other things to do (chores, social events) made me annoyed. Granted I was also living in Killeen, Texas, a sh*thole Army town, so coming back to that wasn't much to write home about. Waco is a great city, but I didn't spend a lot of time there outside of school because I had the drive. It was a miserable existence.

In 2004 I lived with my sister and brother-in-law in a condo right near Chick's Beach on the Chespeake Bay in Virginia Beach. We lived across the street from Chick's Oyster Bar, to this day one of my all-time favorite restaurants. We were a jaunt across Shore Drive from the infamous (and unfortunately now gone) Duck-In. We went there all the time for cocktails and their Friday night beach parties. I loved living there, and it was among the most fun times in my life. 

My love of that location changed, however, when later that summer I got a job working for the Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, a job that changed my life and cemented my love for cities and placemaking. City Hall was less than 20 miles from our condo, but in Hampton Roads traffic it took forever. It was easily a 45 minute drive on most days. Again - hated it. I would get home in a horrible mood, and it would take hours to calm down again. My quality of life and happiness skyrocketed shortly thereafter when I moved to Norfolk's awesome Ghent neighborhood, a mere two miles from my office.

You'd think I'd learned my commuting lesson, but there's one more tale. A year and a half or so after moving to Michigan I took a job working mostly in Detroit. We had just purchased our house, so moving was out of the question. The job was 90 miles one way, a minimum of an hour and a half in the car if everything went smoothly. You know how often that happens during rush hour? Rarely. I hated it. I hated it so much that I would regularly cry while driving home. It lasted six months, and that drive made me miserable every single time. 

For the last six and half years I've lived three miles from my office, and I decided that commute was too long. Now I live a half a mile from work. I LOVE walking to work. Something about that ten minute walk lightens my mood and has me happier by the time I walk in the door. The salubrious effects of walking to and from work definitely impact my happiness. 

We can walk downtown Lansing for dinner. We can walk or bike to Old Town and the Lansing City Market. I hate taking the car out even though in our car-centric culture it's still necessary for a lot of things. Living in a place where I can easily get to destinations without my car has made me a happier human. It's a real thing.

In Happy City Montgomery examines how the "commuting paradox" affects our well-being. A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be satisfied with life than I do (I being someone who walks to work). My favorite statistic of all is that 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."  I hate to say I told you so, but I keep telling you people that I've fallen in love with living downtown and walking to work. It turns out that may literally be true.

My recent health drama has put a halt to my running the last few months. If I didn't already know it, I definitely know now that running makes you happier. Running releases endorphins that can give you that runner's "high" and boost your self esteem. Running gets you in better physical shape, and that helps improve your happiness as well. According to Runner's World the effects of running can be similar to the high one gets from drugs. Maybe that's why I'm addicted to running. There are worse addictions, right? 

For me running relieves stress. It I'm having a stressful time with something at work or in my personal life, a good run helps me relieve that stress. I have worked through some of my toughest problems during a run. It's a quiet time of reflection that I am rarely afforded at any other time. I also sleep better and am less anxious when running regularly.

Combining my love of these two of my favorite things - running and cities - has helped make me a happier and more balanced human being. I love running in my neighborhood and exploring new cities through running. Cities give me the same sort of high that running does. I love knowing that around every corner there's something new to explore.  Who needs to actually do drugs? I'll take my daily hits of running and downtown please.

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