The Scienece of Happiness
Much of our work with companies looking to increase the number of people cycling to and from their place of work is based on their pre existing understanding of the economic benefits such change brings.
Productivity up by 1/3
Reduced numbers of sick days
Meet our good friend Sue. Sue is the HR director for a large IT firm based here in Birmingham. In the past two years Urban Cycles have provided Sue and her colleagues with significant support for resulting in a 300% increase in the numbers of people cycling to and from work. When wemet last week we were planing for this year's Bike Week when Sue began outlining the demonstrable benefits cycling has had on her company, but then Sue went on to make a rather curious observation:
"The thing is Andi it just feels very different"
Sue went on:
"I struggle to describe it but there’s a very tangible sense in which the offices feel different, better, much better"
At this point it would have been easy to observe Sue's observations as veering into the subjective, even the deranged and quite possibly the deluded. Things "seeming different" is hardly an empirical observation. The fact that those who cycle to work are consistently more punctual is essentially an observable fact: Cyclists do not get caught in unpredictable congestion and therefore have consistent travel times. But to suggest that something about the atmosphere of a working environment has positively changed due to increased participation in cycling is surely speculative.
Is it not in fact the cold reality of our lives that cycling, as with any other form of excercise not contained to the luxuries of the Health Spa, is in fact a pretty unpleasent ardous and stressful demand taken on only by a few and always deriving from a sense of moral imperative?
Surely there is nothing more depressing than battling traffick, fighting rain and taking your life in your own hands on a daily basis. Not so argues Paul Jenner author of ‘Life Changing Happyness’:
“Contrary to everything you have believed excercise makes you happy . . . what’s more excercise isn’t only exhilerating at the time, regular excercise has an enduring effect”
Paul Jenner, Life Changing Happiness
Jenner observes that cycling even if only for a sort distance, is inescapably a means of excercise and excercise is a scientifically observable cause of happiness. Why? Because when we excercise:
“levels of Endorphines, Noradrenaline and Phenylethylamine shoot up”
These chemicals are best described in one word "Happiness". In addition to what excercise puts into your body and thus into your mind there’s an important scientific observation as to what cycling removes from your system, namely Cortisol the number one stress hormone. so cycling to and from work offers employees a double whammy, happiness chemicals up, depression and anxiety chemicals down.
Fixing The Unfixable
Much of the above is well documented but there is one feature of the 'Happiness effect' which is much less well documented yet is absolutely crucial to the changing working environment Sue was describing. I’ll explain by means of illustration.
Imagine your sat at your desk with an insurmountable challenge; which of the 259 emails to prioritise, how to make the excel formula actually work, how to meet both your clients demands and their budget etc etc. These demands increase stress and anxiety and are frequently evidenced in an unhappy working environment. Staring at the computer screen there appears to be little sign of a break through, your stress levels are increasing yet you feel further and further from a solution; the left side of the brain deals with process and logic and this situation is becoming flooded with Cortisol thus while you feel to be working harder you are in fact working less productively by the minute. Less productivity, increases your work load reducing your capacity for the good tings in life, family, friends etc. The Spiral of unhappyness sets in and too often becomes overwhelming.
Why does this matter?
Because repetative excercises such as the Cadence involved in cycling closes down the left side of the brain while concurrently stimulating the right/creative side thus enabling a break through of tasks which otherwise appeared impossible. The cycle of unhappyness is not only broken but is in fact prevented from beginning. Sue's working environment is a place in which things get done, employees feel proud of their achievements and are able to spend their time on the things they enjoy.
And so I ask Sue to observe one very simple thing: how many times in the coming week she hears the line:
“ I was riding to work and I suddenly worked it out!”
A few days later Sue rings me and has given up counting! Don't take my word for it, the God Father of modern physics, Albert Einstien said this on his discovering the Theory of Relativity,
"I thought of it while riding my bike"
Of course he did! The old rules locked his intellect in one place until his bike freed that same intellect to think differently.
There a lot in a good kip
Ever spent a night tossing and turning unable to get to sleep? Ever had a hellish day in work due to your lack of sleep the night before? You can be guaranteed that a percentage of your colleagues are in exactly that place every single day! You can also be garaunteed that it’s largely preventable. Anxiety causes sleeplessness and sleepness causes further anxiety. A visious and often debilitating cycle. Cycling to and from work kicks out the anxiety and enables your colleagues to recieve all the benefits of a good night sleep.
Celebrate The Attainable
We’re not stupid and we try not to be ignorant, we are therefore aware that for some people the reality is that cycling to work simply does not appear to be a feasible option, the distance to work may be too great, the demands of the school run erode into the working day etc. We’ll debate that rationale elsewhere but here’s the thing for now.
Research at Penn University found that:
“Those who had exercised during the preceding week but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.”
One of the characteristics of workplace cycling that we observe in Sue's office and in many other locations we have supported over the years is that it (cycling) is contagious and so are its effects. We all want to do what is good for us. We observe what appears to be good for others and want it for ourselves. The more people cycle the more people want to cycle. Meaning that those who feel unable to cycle to work may none the less feel encouraged to participate in this goodness by cycling at the weekend or in the evening. Such steps ought to be valued as having an impact both on their well being but also on their happiness and thus on the well being of the company they work for.
Note that the key ingredient above is to get cyclists talking about cycling. How had can that be?!
Sue was right. Something has changed. A whole lot of people feel a whole lot happier and that is very, very good news for the bottom line! Here's a few actions you might encourage your employees to take in order to boost the happiness of your working environment.
- Talk to Urban Cycles about procuring a small pool of bikes for your company employees
- Encourage their regular use, especially at lunch times
- Talk to us about a Bike Day to promote the benefits of cycling
- Encourage non cycling colleagues to join you for an evening or weekend ride
- Talk to us about offering a lunch time ‘led rides’ program remember:
- Start small, really small: Nothing is more of a turn off than that which appears overwhelming or impossible. Start with small attainable achievements, be proud of yourself and then progress.
If you work in HR.
- Identify a cycling ambassador and incentivise them to get more of their colleagues cycling, give them opportunity to talk about their cycling and reward them for their contributions.
- Get on the mailing list for organisation like Sustrans and Centro
- Encourage weekend cycling.
- Introduce a 'Rider of the week' award on Monday mornings. Reward what is exciting and new not just athletic prowess.
- Consider offering incentives such as free breakfast for those cycling to work (the financial remuneration from their cycling will far outweigh the cost of breakfast).
Always remember we're here to help!
Keep riding, Keep smiling!!