If one was to judge by sheer wealth, the last half-century should have been an ecstatically happy time for people in the US and other rich nations such as Canada, Japan and Great Britain. And yet the boom decades of the late 20th century were not accompanied by a boom in wellbeing. The British got richer by more than 40% between 1993 and 2012, but the rate of psychiatric disorders and neuroses grew.
Just before the crash of 2008, a team of Italian economists, led by Stefano Bartolini, tried to account for that seemingly inexplicable gap between rising income and flatlining happiness in the US. The Italians tried removing various components of economic and social data from their models, and found that the only factor powerful enough to hold down people’s self-reported happiness in the face of all that wealth was the country’s declining social capital: the social networks and interactions that keep us connected with others. It was even more corrosive than the income gap between rich and poor.
As much as we complain about other people, there is nothing worse for mental health than a social desert.
There is a clear connection between social deficit and the shape of cities. A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce. People who live in monofunctional, car‑dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work.
A couple of University of Zurich economists, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, compared German commuters’ estimation of the time it took them to get to work with their answers to the standard wellbeing question, “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”
Their finding was seemingly straightforward: the longer the drive, the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this as numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. People were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% 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.