There is evidence from research on brain activity and neurochemistry clearly showing that that exercise releases biochemical endorphins. Endorphins are also produced by our bodies when we are excited, scared, in pain, in love, or eat spicy food. They are natural opiates that reduce pain and make us feel happy, comfortable, and relaxed.
There is also research that suggests that cycling, or at exercise in general, makes us smarter. I’m not a brain surgeon or neuroscientist; I can’t guarantee that it’s true. But I’m amazed at the number of times I go on a ride while puzzling out the structure or wording for a Pedal On column, and somewhere by the bird sanctuary along Cabrillo Boulevard, or while I’m riding up Modoc to Hollister, the pieces fall into place.
Want more evidence of the connection between problem-solving and cycling? Einstein was riding his bicycle when he thought of the theory of relativity! The E=MC2 theoretical physicist was a cyclist who was well aware that the rhythm and concentration of riding a bicycle could encourage cognitive creativity. There is a great photo in the Caltech archives taken on February 6, 1933, that shows Einstein riding a bicycle in Santa Barbara on February 6, 1933, with a huge smile on his face.
If Einstein isn’t enough, here’s one last bit of evidence. A study by the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that older people who were more active (walking, running, biking) had 5 percent more brain cells and reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Every time I see Carmen Lozano (now vice president of the Bicycle Coalition) riding her bike, I know without a doubt that when we cycle, we smile and are happier.
However, I do believe that the happiness we feel when cycling goes beyond mere brain chemistry. When I interviewed Jill Gass for a recent column, she talked about the happy memories she has of her father teaching her to ride a bike. She remembers him holding the saddle, running behind her as he encouraged her to pedal. Jill believes that part of the reason she smiles whenever she’s on her bike is from her fond memories of her dad’s nurturing support.
I have similar memories of learning to ride on Bentley Road in suburban New Jersey, wobbling unsteadily down the road, my father running behind me. Soon, I was a confident neighborhood rider. My best friend, Jay, and I wore huge smiles as we rode everywhere on our identical blue Schwinns with center tanks, rear racks, and fenders. We had cool bikes! I’m not so sure about the dungarees.
It’s June gloom, and I’m already missing dawn-to-dusk sunny days. Santa Barbara, on average, has 300 sunny days a year. Pittsburgh, where I lived for years, has only 165, and I swear most of those happen at night. Sunny days make me happy. I just learned from my friend Randy, who is learning about beekeeping, that cloudy days also make bees cranky. The sun is a mood elevator for humans and bees.
In often-foggy, gray London, England, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson created an exhibit at the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern Gallery called the Weather Project. Sadly, I never saw the exhibit, but another good friend and fellow artist did. Elizabeth’s first words when describing it were, “It made me smile. And, everyone around me was smiling and playing like we were in a sunny park.”
In the five-story-high and 508-foot-long Turbine Hall, Eliasson created a huge, glowing sun out of 200 low-sodium mono-frequency lights. Hanging behind a translucent screen, the sun floats in the cavernous misty space with an ethereal presence. Beneath the unearthly light of the sun, exhibit-goers lay on the floor sunbathing, picnicking in small groups, and wandering with smiles of awe on their faces. The Weather Project re-creates the sense of wonder that medieval peasants might have felt when they walked into the darkness of a vast medieval cathedrals lit by sunlight streaming through the huge stained glass window.
I felt the same sense of wonder on my first industrial tour of the vast dark spaces of a steel mill in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. We walked through endless spaces filled with machinery, where dump trucks looked like Tonka toys. Finally, deep in the dark bowels of the mile-long space we saw the enormous electric arc furnace, and 100 tons of molten steel at 2,500 degrees glowing yellow-orange as bright as the sun.
Every day my bike carries me on errands, work meetings, to the beach, to see friends, and more. But the biggest reason I ride my bike – in all weather, day and night – is because it’s meditation, therapy, and pure hedonistic pleasure all rolled into one. If you want the happiness trifecta, ride your bike on a sunny Santa Barbara day while listening to the Michael Franti & Spearhead song “Invincible Love”. Remember, only one ear bud while riding.