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mental health mondays :: happy places

i'm a city girl. i grew up in a small city, albeit one with a cultural life larger than one would expect from its population size. i live in a city of approximately three million, with a million of them packed onto an island at the urban centre. i used to live in a city of over five million, give or take, whose urban sprawl was so significant that even one of its suburbs is among the largest cities in the country. i like cities. i like the variety of activity, the collision of cultures, the energy, the feeling of being in a political, artistic and educational centre point. but i'm also a girl who likes the country. i don't get there often enough, but i have always loved being able to rest in the quiet by the ocean [i'm decidedly ocean-oriented when it comes to my quiet spaces]. i don't know that i could ever live in a really remote location- it seems like a pleasant idea until i start to consider the practicalities of long trips to get food in, large-scale snow clearance and property maintenance, and isolation from health services, which will only become a greater problem as i age. i can see myself eventually retiring to a small town, something with a university and a long history.

one thing i cannot stomach is suburbs. to me, they combine the worst of all possible worlds, along with a peculiar hell of sameness and destructive boredom. that's an easy thing to say in this day and age, of course. everyone who doesn't live in one hates the american-style suburb. the suburb is mocked as the home of affluent, uptight people preoccupied with an homogenous ideal of perfection for themselves, their homes, their children and their chemically-enhanced lawns. they're devoid of the cultural exchange of cities, the wildness of the country and the warm camaraderie of the small town. [note :: i'm perfectly aware that these are broad stereotypes and that there are plenty of examples of dull cities, depressed farming country and mean-spirited towns.]

those are my prejudices, which are consistent with the prejudices of a lot of people, particularly city folk. but it got me to wondering, do the places where we live have a great effect on our mental health, as great as other social factors? am i onto something by insisting that urban living has benefits beyond access to interesting grocery shops and art galleries? or do those who have decamped for [literally] greener pastures have the upper hand in mental health? someone has to have studied that, right?

right. in fact, a lot of people have studied it, but there's a lot of variance in terms of what they've found, mostly because there's a lot of variance in what they've taken into account. for starters, there has been a tendency for research to look at urban dwellers and compare them to those in small towns or in rural areas. that means that the suburbs get lumped in with one group or the other, rather than treated as a completely separate group. this is a great disservice, because the suburban experience is very different than any of those things. people in cities and small towns have lives that are focused in the area where they live. people in suburbs are often split between locations, with home and work existing in completely different spaces and involving a great deal of transit that's simply absent from the lives of others.

when compared to those in small towns, urban folk don't do very well. we're much more prone to virtually every sort of mental disorder, from mild depression to full-blown schizophrenia. contrary to what you might think, a german study revealed that the brains of city dwellers are less adept at dealing with stress than their small-town counterparts. in an environment where we're constantly exposed to stress- noise, pollution, strangers- we get worse at dealing with it, not better. one possible explanation for that [discussed in the linked article] is that our stress monitors- the sort of thing that makes animals raise their hackles or quietly growl- are constantly being triggered by so many things that we're in a constant state of aggravation whether we realise it or not. so it's that much easier to be nudged over the edge by anything. [interestingly, a study in great britain that looked at similar issues found that the mental health differences between the urban and rural areas of the country were there, but that the difference wasn't only a little over the threshold of statistical significance. so there's a lot more at work than just the question of big city vs. small town.]

for a true look at the suburbs' effect is on mental health, however, we're better off confining ourselves to studies done in north america. that's because suburbs work differently here than they do in europe. with our preponderance of land, the tendency has been for people to try express their financial status through acquiring it. since world war ii, there has been a well-documented migration outward from north american cities into spaces where land was available and affordable for the middle class family. in europe, suburbs have become the places where people are "pushed out"- often poor or working class, filled with grim high rises and reserved for those who can't afford life at the heart of the city. the comparatively tiny continent is riddled with towns that have been in place for centuries. there simply isn't the room to build large bedroom communities.

even in america, the effects of suburban life on mental health haven't been particularly well-documented. a lot of people seem inclined to rely on the sort of logic i have- that urban life is vibrant and exciting, whereas suburban life is stifling and monotonous- or to transpose the findings of the european-style studies and make the assumption that urban life is stressful and frustrating, whereas suburban life corresponds more with that of those in small towns. in fact, the answer is a little more complicated.

for those who think that the suburbs are a perfect compromise between urban bustle and rural quiet, good news: this study shows that life on the fringes of the metropolis has no negative effect on your mental health. the bad news is that it has ill effects on your physical health in a lot of different ways. people in the suburbs are significantly more prone to arthritis, back pain, lung disease, urinary tract problems, migraine and digestive issues. given that ill health often causes secondary depression, it may only be a matter of time before rates catch up with those of their urban cousins, but for the moment, living in suburbia does seem to have its advantages. [note :: if you survey the charts associated with this study, you'll notice that the median income for participants is between $40,000 and $50,000 per year. although the authors say they have adjusted for income differences, even the lower end of that range is substantially higher than the united states average. since there is generally a strong correlation between poverty and rates of mental illness, it's worth considering that part of that greater mental health may be accounted for by reduced anxiety over money.]

if found that this study had perhaps the most interesting information on the suburban versus urban debate, because it doesn't just judge the relative happiness of the two, or the incidence of mental illness, but the specific concerns of suburbanites as in comparison to both urban and rural dwellers. the picture it paints is a great deal more subtle.

according to its findings, there are two main factors that are associated with deteriorating mental health: population density and affluence. in terms of population density, the traditional view holds: the more we are squished up against strangers, the less happy we are. this makes perfect sense when you consider that animals are used to living either within a defined group where they know all the members, or on their own. the presence of strange animals is a cause of stress due to impulses buried deep down in our psyche. we feel crowded and threatened being surrounded by all of these others that we don't know, and the result is that we feel worse over all. [of course, we should add to that the fact that densely populated places are generally higher in crime and in our proximity to it, which further erodes our sense of security.]

it's with the factor of affluence that weird things start to happen. although, as i've mentioned, people who are wealthier tend to exhibit more robust mental health, those who live in wealthier suburbs are generally worse off than either those who live in less affluent suburbs or urban areas. and this is where the traditional distinction between the angry, depressed city folk and the relaxed, happy small town ones hits a snag. suburbanites are trapped in a paradoxical world where the more moneyed and satisfying the surroundings are, the less happy with their lives and themselves are the people in them.

there is definitely a tiered system of suburbs, where the most expensive tend to be located farther out, with larger houses and more land. early suburbs tend now to be a little shabbier. the houses are closer, smaller and promote interaction with others in the neighbourhood. newer suburbs facilitate privacy and isolation. as a result, people in these wealthier suburbs feel more detached from both their neighbours and their community. there is less of a sense of belonging to anything and of being alone which, as it turns out, is just as emotionally damaging as being asses to ankles with a bunch of strangers.

also, people in wealthier suburbs report being less happy with themselves and feeling as if they have less control over their lives. it's not possible to say with any certainty from the numbers alone, but i personally think that might be because "wealth" is a very different matter than "money". suburban wealth is often financed through debt, which can shackle a person to certain responsibilities and limit their options. as i said, that's a theory- i don't have any science to back me up on that. there could just as easily be anxieties related to the amount of work that's required to maintain a larger property, or the rigid schedules that larger distances between things imposes, or simply because of feelings of competitiveness between neighbours.

one factor that definitely bears consideration is the limited opportunities for physical exercise, particularly outdoors. we've talked before on mental health mondays about the strong correlation between physical inactivity and mental distress and there is no doubt that newer suburbs are not built for physical activity. most don't even have sidewalks, which means that even a trip to the store to pick up milk usually requires a car. the increased time it takes to do things like commute, buy groceries, get to school, etc. tends to promote a sedentary lifestyle, which is known to make depression and anxiety worse.

so, after all that, are we better off living in the city or the suburbs? the easy answer is "neither". both are rife with problems that needle at the parts of our brain we can least control. we'd be better off staying in smaller places with a strong civic core, opportunities to get out and move, where we can get to know a lot of the people we see and where we feel we can be meaningfully involved. that can mean smaller cities or towns, but it can also mean living in a city that has strongly defined neighbourhoods that allow you to work and live mostly within a defined region. it could also mean considering some older suburbs, which are less daunting that those at the vanguard of the urban sprawl. more importantly than all of that, i think it shows that there are relationships between where we live and our psychological well-being, and that those things should factor into our [sub]urban planning.


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