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City planners and designers want to build cities that are liveable, healthy and smart. Yet, in the abundance of research and guidelines on how to make healthy cities, happiness seems to be missing.
Research shows urban environments have an impact on our well-being and mental health, affect our behaviour and moods, interactions, day-to-day lives and even alter how our brain functions.
Our recent study found people associate their happiness with particular natural and built elements in the environment. This highlights how we can improve the design of cities to enhance people’s happiness.
In the first part of our study, we searched Instagram for images of the city people associated with happiness. We did this using four hashtags:
The images came from all corners of the globe, with no geographical limitation.
We sifted through hundreds of images, excluding photographs that were “selfies”, had non-urban attributes, or if they included people posing. Overall, we narrowed it down to 196 images, all of which exhibited characteristics of an urban area.
We found photographs tagged with one of the above hashtags consistently featured particular design elements. These were:
natural elements (vegetation, sand, rocks)
historic or heritage buildings
medium density buildings (up to six storeys)
human scale buildings (horizontal rather than vertical).
The same features came up time and again, irrespective of demographic and geographic location. This supports the idea there may be universal urban features that enhance happiness.
We then tested these themes on Brisbane residents through an online questionnaire.
Twenty-two people took part in the online survey. They were asked to evaluate their happiness relative to different features, characteristics and images of areas in Brisbane. The survey comprised a series of multiple choice, selection and rating questions.
The results showed participants associated happiness with the same features as those who had posted on Instagram using the above hashtags. Most common to happiness was open space (86 per cent of respondents) and natural lighting (81 per cent).
Natural spaces with greenery such as parks, gardens and areas with trees, as well as areas that had water, had a significant positive impact on respondents’ happiness. Proximity to facilities, walkability of the area, green belts and views to mountains were also significant factors.
Historic or heritage character buildings ranked pretty highly (72 per cent), over the more modern style buildings. Laneways also scored pretty highly (72 per cent) as did views of the city (68 per cent) and colour (59 per cent). We noticed people liked other things, such as the materials used on sidewalks, roads and building facades.
This pilot study confirms there are specific elements which can be incorporated and factored into the planning and design of cities to enhance people’s happiness. Our further research is currently building on these initial findings, focusing on the relationship between density, urban design and happiness.
How can we use this?
Happiness is a major component of human well-being. But it isn’t factored into the widely recognised quality of life (including health, well-being and a number of economic factors) and liveability (including the standard of living) surveys of cities.
Some evidence suggests average happiness levels in Western nations haven’t improved in the last 68 years (since 1950). This is despite first-world incomes more than doubling in that time.
Happiness studies look at the links between human “subjective well-being” and the environment. We can determine people’s preferences, subjective view and association with elements of the built environment through research, and then apply the lessons to design to improve the quality of the urban environment.
Our research highlights the key elements to be cognisant of in urban transformation projects and designing for future urban areas. These findings show we can use such knowledge and apply this to existing cities to retrofit them for happiness.
People are increasingly leaving the broad acre, single detached home to live in denser, more compact urban areas. There are many benefits to this urban settlement. But to make this lifestyle compatible with human happiness and foster mental health, the design, planning and governing policy needs to consider such factors.
Katie Davis spends her afternoons and evenings in therapy sessions with kids. As a clinical psychologist in private practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Davis helps young patients through severe anxiety, mood disorders and other mental health challenges in order to improve their educational attainment.
She says she’s “taking on all of their struggles,” and she’s doing so without an outlet for her own stress. “I’m not allowed to talk about my patients. Everything that happens at work stays just with me,” Davis says. “Which is obviously necessary … but at the same time it’s pretty isolating, and it can be overwhelming.”
Loneliness has been called an epidemic in the United States, and it affects certain professions more severely than others. According to a recent survey by the digital workplace coaching company BetterUp:
LAWYERS AND DOCTORS ARE THE LONELIEST PROFESSIONALS — “BY FAR.”
The research surveyed 1,624 full-time employees about their loneliness, or the “perception of being alone and isolated.” Salary didn’t seem to matter much when it came to this particular state of being: Those making $80,000 a year showed only about a 10 percent improvement in battling loneliness and finding social support over folks making half that much.
Instead, the key factors seem to be type of profession and level of education. In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science. Occupations involving high degrees of social interaction such as social work, marketing and sales were at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Those with graduate degrees also experienced higher levels of loneliness and less workplace support than respondents with less education. Those lonesome lawyers and doctors? They turned out to be 25 percent lonelier than respondents with bachelor’s degrees and 20 percent lonelier than Ph.D.s. “We found that it really has to do with how much of a culture of social support is in the workplace,” says Andrew Reece, a behavioral data scientist at BetterUp.
Another part of the connection between education and loneliness could be the nature of graduate school, which is best suited for introverts, according to Andrew Selepak, a telecommunications professor at the University of Florida. In his case, most of his work was done alone in front of a computer or in a library, which didn’t sit easily with his extroverted personality. “To get to the point where you become a college professor, a doctor, a lawyer, one of the occupations that might take more education,” Selepak says, “you’ve spent literally years doing work that is relatively solitary.”
As for Davis the psychologist, she anticipated the isolation of running a business. Since she works with child patients, she doesn’t have a social circle of colleagues the way she would in, say, a clinic setting. “I knew that it would be a really overwhelming and lonely experience,” she says.
At the same time, Davis likes having the power and autonomy to handle her cases and her practice as she sees fit. Those factors outweigh the negatives, and over time she has developed ways of managing her loneliness. She has a supervisor she meets about once a month for guidance, and she has joined Listserv and professional groups that organize events. Davis also landed a part-time research job so she could interact and collaborate with others in her field. This kind of workplace culture, she thinks, is powerful for increasing the sense of social connectivity among colleagues.
Like Davis, Selepak saw a solitary work environment as a given part of his career choice. He’d been prepared for it, but he knew he needed to find more ways to interact with people. He made friends with folks outside his area of expertise so he could talk with them about sports and pop culture, and he became a regular at his gym, which provided him with another, more casual social setting.
Still, BetterUp Chief Innovation Officer Gabriella Rosen Kellerman says questions continue to revolve around why loneliness is prevalent in certain careers. Now, though, employers understand that its presence in a workplace can lead to lower productivity and negatively affect a business, so they are shifting their focus to improve workplace culture, which can be difficult. Creating “shared meaning” and emphasizing why an employee’s work matters can make a big difference, Kellerman says.
“[Cultures] are historically the hardest changes to make in a workplace, and part of that is we’ve been approaching it wrong,” Kellerman says. “Each person whose behavior or thinking you want to change has to be dealt with as an individual.”