I’m currently reading The Happy City by Charles Montgomery about how we can make ourselves happier (and greener and healthier) by redesigning our cities. It ticks all sorts of boxes for me: from a cameo appearance by Enrique Penalosa on a bike to plenty of love for the sort of mixed human-scale urbanism so eloquently championed by Jane Jacobs, as well as putting into words some of the things I find a bit disturbing about visiting Colorado, however bright and glorious the winter weather.
I haven’t finished reading it yet, but one thing did stand out in the chapter on what makes humans happy. One of the key ingredients of happiness, apparently, is the feeling that you can trust the people around you and happiness researchers measure it by asking people what they think the likelihood is that their wallet would be returned to them by a stranger if they dropped it where they lived.
Now, as it happens, most people massively underestimate the chances of getting their wallet back – what the question really measures, indirectly, is how well they know their neighbours and how often they interact positively with the people around them. Improving people’s happiness, therefore, includes basically re-engineering the way we live so that we can have lots of friendly interactions with other people, which means doing things like getting rid of sprawl, shortening commutes, creating green spaces in cities and rolling back the dominance of the car – all brilliant and worthwhile things but a) a bit long term and b) unlikely when you have a government whose transport policy consists of building dual carriageways between every town in Scotland and then when they are finished with that possibly thinking about some cycle paths (I really wish I was making this up).
Obviously, I will continue to campaign for such a re-imagining of our cities and towns but fortunately there is a shortcut for those of us wishing to be happy in our lifetimes – you can be me, and just leave your wallet and other assorted valuables in a trail behind you wherever you go, and discover first hand the honesty of the people around you. It’s a slightly high-risk strategy, perhaps, but imagine your surprise and delight at getting a letter in the post informing you that your wallet which disappeared on the train on the way to the US over Christmas, has turned up in a lost property depot in Huddersfield. This means I shall soon be reunited with not just my (by now cancelled – I’m optimistic, not completely naive) bank cards, but my driver’s licence (I think I have a use for it; it will come to me eventually…), WWT membership card, Advanced Open Water diver’s qualification (may come in handy if it keeps raining) and, most important of all, every library card I’ve ever been issued…