The 2013 World Happiness Report (PDF) is out, and my conclusion is that people are happier when they ride bikes more.
Okay, maybe it's not that simple. But every one of the top five happiest countries on the list are also in the top ten for per capita bike ownership.
According to the report, the happiest nation on Earth is Denmark, and they rank second for bike ownership. Copenhagen is usually regarded as the bike capital of the world. Norway finished second for happiness and they rank fifth for bikes. Switzerland was in third place for happiness and eighth for bikes, the Netherlands came in fourth for happiness and first for bikes, while Sweden was the fifth happiest place and also ranks fifth for per capita bike ownership.
Of the top ten countries for biking, only China didn't make the top half of nations on the happiness list. But only China is moving rapidly away from biking and toward more auto driving, while the other nine countries in the top ten are working to expand biking.
The United States came in 17th for happiness and didn't make the rankings for bike ownership, but we know that there is about one bike for every three Americans. In the Netherlands, there is one bike for every person in the country.
Now, the reasons for happiness aren't at all nailed down, but it's clear that it has little to do with the weather, as the rest of the top ten list is rounded out by Canada, Finland, Austria, Iceland and Australia. Only the Aussies have beaches worth bragging about. Maybe the conclusion should be that snow makes us happier than sand.
It has been suggested that happiness might be linked to a sense of security that comes from a cradle to grave welfare state, shorter work hours (each year the average Dane works a full month less than the average American), and a much better and more fair distribution of wealth creating a strong middle class.
Those all seem like plausible reasons to me, but I like my bikes-equals-happiness theory too. People who bike a lot have exercise built in to their daily lives, and we know that exercise relieves stress. We also know that long car commutes amid lots of traffic takes its toll. (The European Cyclists' Federation offers a similar analysis.)
And then there are the kinds of places we create. It has been my observation that places that make for safe and comfortable biking are also great places to live, whether or not you ride a bike. Making great places for biking almost assures pleasant and healthy surroundings for living the rest of your life, on or off a bicycle.
So I think there's some truth to my theory: everything we do to make biking easier, safer, more comfortable and more pleasant will have ripple effects of greater happiness throughout society.
[Editor's note: Dave Cieslewicz is executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.]