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Happiness and well-being are often used interchangeably. However, happiness is associated with the pleasant feeling accompanying certain events which then contributes to the general state of our well-being. Subsequently, unhappy experiences reduce our state of well-being and the reduction of those experiences should be at the heart of policy decisions.

The Human Development Index often serves as an indicator for countries’ well-being and well developed countries tend to be the home of happier people. Thus, as Stevenson and Wolfers argue, “there appears to be a very strong relationship between subjective well-being and income”. However, Layard points out as soon as a country reaches an income of USD 15,000 pear head, the correlation between happiness and income is insignificant. Moreover, a report by Gallup and Healthways which places Panama and Costa Rica ahead of well developed countries such as Denmark and Austria in terms of their degree of happiness. A similar argument can be made at the city level. In London, for example, the economic status of individual boroughs does not necessarily correlate with the degree of happiness of their population.

Thus, when we invest in economic growth we should not just emphasize possible economic benefits, but wider benefits that increase our well-being. This was also emphasised during the RSA City Growth Commission’s evidence hearing in Bristol and is indeed an important point to make if we assume that a high degree of well-being is what we ultimately strive for in our lives.

The Commission’s report - ‘Connected Cities – The link to growth’ – argued that improved infrastructure serves as an enabler for economic growth by exploiting the agglomeration benefits which derive from larger labour and housing markets. However, improved transport infrastructure does not just result in economic growth, but also in increased well-being. After all, a journey is not just about getting us from A to B, it is an almost daily experience for most of us that affects our degree of well-being. In short: it’s not just about economic growth, it’s also about getting a seat on the train.

Often we tend to accept a longer commuting time if we are compensated with a more rewarding job or living in a more pleasant neighbourhood, but it’s not only the travel time, but also the quality of the journey, that matters. Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey of the University of Zurich have published a paper on the correlation between commuting and happiness and found that people tend to have a lower degree of well-being when they commute longer. Stressful commuting can lead to raised blood pressure, lowered frustration tolerance, increased anxiety and affect our mood when arriving at work or home. To make matters worse, couples in which at least one partner commutes for more than 45 minutes, are forty percent more likely to separate. Commuting does not seem to make us very happy and has an almost daily effect on our well-being.

Subsequently, it is not necessarily the distance between home and office that is important, but the time needed to get from A to B and the stress level as the result of the journey. ‘Connected Cities’ pointed out that it takes over one hour and twenty minutes to get from Manchester to Sheffield to cover just 38 miles (Mapnificient offers an interesting tool that underlines that distance does not necessarily correlate with travel time). Both cities offer immense potential in terms of housing and jobs, both of which serve our basic needs and well-being, yet any benefits one might reap by living in Manchester and working in Sheffield are likely to be mitigated by the negative effects of a long commute. Similar arguments can be made about other cities in the Northern Powerhouse which seem so close to each other but yet far apart for many commuters. Taking into account that the lack of transport infrastructure and congestion is a common phenomenon in most cities around the world and thus affects nearly everyone of us in one way or another, there is huge potential to increase economic growth in particular and well-being in general by addressing the lack of sufficient transport capacity.

Thus, efficient transport systems can increase well-being not only via economic growth (resulting in financial security and higher living standards), but also simply by keeping people in a better mood.

This blog was originally posted by the City Growth Commission. You can follow Thomas @ThHauschildt


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