The Shortest Path to Happiness

By Daniele Quercia

We all know how busy the world is today. People race around from place to place trying to shave off minutes from their commutes in order to squeeze in more time for other things. But what if you had a happier, more pleasant journey?

In a previous Tumblr post called “Can Cities Make us Happy?”, we summarized our preliminary work on which urban elements make people happy. We found that in London, for example, people associate public gardens and Victorian and red brick houses with beauty and happiness, and that cars and fortress-like buildings are associated with sadness.

In our latest research we put those insights to practical use in the form of maps and routes. Consider that existing mapping technologies return shortest directions. Now, imagine a new mapping tool that, instead of suggesting the shortest walking course from A to B, is able to suggest a route that is both short and pleasant. Based on our previous work, we were able to design algorithms that automatically map out the most beautiful, quiet, and happy routes between two points. Taking into account an average of the results of the three algorithms, our study showed that despite being 12% longer in length and roughly 7 and a half minutes longer in time, respondents preferred the option of taking more scenic, quiet, and happy routes.

More interestingly perhaps, our study participants in London and Boston loved to attach memories to places: both personal memories (e.g., “This is the street I gave my first kiss.”) and shared memories (e.g., “That’s where the old BBC building was.”) In “Remembrance of Things Past,” French novelist Marcel Proust described how a small bite of a madeleine cake unleashed a cascade of memories from childhood. In a similar way, our participants found places to be pleasant (or not) and memorable depending on the way they smelled and sounded. It turns out that these smells and sounds also play a role in the paths people take from one place to another. This point begs a new question with fascinating implications for the research community: What if we had a mapping tool that suggested pleasant routes based not only on aesthetics, but also on memories, smells, and sounds?

Our study produced one other compelling point worth mentioning — participants pointed out that the experience of a place changes during the course of a day. For example, one of our London participants commented, “Fleet street is beautiful because of its history. However, depending on the time of day, it can be colorless and busy leading to the opposite results.” The idea that the pleasantness of routes differs depending on the daily course of the sun, variance in temperature, and noise level is extremely insightful and nuanced.

As we continue to research the shortest path to happiness, we’re thinking about all these questions. If you find this concept as interesting as we do and live in Berlin, Boston, London, or Turin, then we’d love for you to share your memories around a few paths in your city here. You’ll be helping us with our research, and hopefully making people’s paths happier.