On Society

‘Sick’ City Society?

Having been beyond lazy with my extra-curricular writing in the past year (save an article on my summer Israel trip, with a title I cannot and will not take responsibility for… see here if you are so inclined), I’ve been spurred into fingers-tapping-frantically-on-keyboard action by an article in the Guardian reporting on various research studies/ hypotheses about the link between city living and poorer mental health.

My initial reaction to the article was to be mildly disparaging. Journalists shouldn’t give credence or column inches to research suggesting that “aircraft noise might inhibit children’s learning” – and three-year-old me with Playmobil plane in hand (the airport set was a firm favourite) would vociferously disagree! Sight and sound stimuli are more commonly learning aids than inhibitors, I’m sure. And conversely, car noise helps?! Pet peeve as a researcher: when people focus in on the data too closely and suspend common sense.

It also omits the obvious. Us city folk tend to work longer hours, for money that doesn’t stretch as far because it’s so expensive to rent/ own a home. Very simple causes of stress, no?

Yet the Guardian article doesn’t wholly err on the ridiculous; there’s some interesting ideas to contemplate in there about how the urban habitat is not conducive to mental wellbeing. So I got to thinking about how social density cultivates social isolation. I’m surrounded by people on the packed District Line tube in the morning – the number of armpits I’ve been squeezed under like a piece of fruit waiting to be juiced is thoroughly depressing – and yet I establish no real connection with any of these people. We all plug into the Matrix (iPad, iPod, smart phone, Kindle) and try to zone out the relatively unpleasant commute. The only emotion I feel in response to a fellow traveller is typically disdain, when they attempt to read the Metro when there’s barely an inch of space between my face and theirs, and I almost lose an eye. And it’s not a real newspaper anyway.

London has a very special way of at times making one feel very alone, sure. I think another city-specific mind-fuck (not mentioned in the article) is an issue often discussed in the context of behavioural economics: the paradox of choice. The established wisdom was that choice is always a good thing – not so, say proponents of BE. Human beings have been proven to be pretty dire choosers when too many options are presented to them; they lack the capacity to evaluate these effectively. This is why best-buy shortlists and Amazon recommendation are so appealing to us – they dramatically simplify and therefore ameliorate the chore that choice can be. In a big city, we are bombarded with choice. Just open up TimeOut and see the myriad things you can do on any given evening. It’s great, and at the same time anxiety-inducing.

It’s difficult selecting the right Vietnamese BYOB restaurant on Kingsland Road, the right ‘critic’s choice’ kitchen sink drama in Soho – or even deciding at a more basic level what you feel like doing on a particular evening with friends or a partner. Whatever you finally pick entails a huge opportunity cost. OMG SO MUCH PRESSURE WHAT IF THE BURGER ISN’T AS GOOD AS AT MEAT LIQUOR OR DIRTY BURGER OR HONEST BURGER AND THE BURGERAC.ORG REVIEW WAS HORRIFICALLY MISGUIDED?! It’s a first-world problem, mind.
Sometimes the choices you have to make are more profound ones – and again, the city will supply options in abundance. There are 1,000s upon 1,000s of jobs out there in more obscure/ specialised fields than elsewhere in the country, in our predominant tertiary sector. Which career path to take? And then there’s dating in the city. With the ease and convenience provided by the now near-ubiquitous Tinder, there’s enough people out there for you to dismiss at the swipe of a finger, and you’ll still have plenty left to have a pool of several on the go, unsure which – if any – is ultimately deserving of your precious time. I’m not against using technology to help meet someone per se – and that would be hypocritical, shhh – but the tools at our disposal can dilute relationships as well as facilitate them.
Further, greater choice engenders higher expectations and, as a result, we experience disappointment more frequently.

So that’s my two cents, based on experience, of how city life can make you mental. It can also be challenging in a good way, and enriching, exhilarating, magical… But I guess there’s no news story there, so lets hear more, Dr Pseudo Science, on how “our brains are not perfectly shaped for living in urban environments”…

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