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Population Density & Decreased Happiness

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

"I could jump right off this," I thought, as I ran across a bridge that stretched over the Colorado river. In a not-so-macabre way, I've thought thoughts like this a lot. I could turn my steering wheel into a guardrail. I could fall off the side of a mountain. I could step off a curb at just the wrong time. I could slice my hand off while cutting into a squash. Someone could break into my apartment in the dead of night. Someone could mistake me for a deer in the midst of hunting season. Anything can happen, which is wonderful and terrifying and thrilling all at once.

The day before I ran across the bridge that stretched over the Colorado river, I car camped with a few of my friends on the edge of a town on the edge of the Grand Canyon. The air was cold, really cold, and the sky was dark and clear. We could see hundreds of stars. Thousands of stars, maybe, if anyone cared to count. A campfire burned brightly and I wanted to savor how still it was. I wanted this dark, quiet peacefulness always, and I sunk into it as if it was a big, comfortable sweater, soft from dozens of washings.

I live in Southern California where there is always something happening, always a million people on the road, always lights and noise. In Orange County alone, there are over 3 million people, and while I enjoy the energy of this place, it can be tiresome. When I stood around that campfire I felt like a weight had been lifted off me, like I could take a deep breath and relax without someone or something interrupting my peace. There was no light other than our fire. No noise other than our voices. No rush to get anywhere or do anything.

The longer I live in high-density areas, the more I feel this friction, the push and pull that comes from living in a place that offers endless opportunity and also living in a place where the sky is smothered by light. I love it, but it's exhausting. I crave the quietude of the mountains. I miss falling asleep with my windows open breathing clean air, and not hearing a thing. In high-density areas, we are never alone. We are always being watched and recorded and listened to and infringed upon. We pay more for less space and minor things like parking, laundry, or grocery shopping become hassles. This is something I've experienced anecdotally, but it's also a reality that's backed by research.

Economists John Winters and Yu Li examined the overall effects of urban living on happiness in the United States as measured by self-reported life satisfaction. They found that living in large metropolitan areas and counties with higher population densities reduces average happiness levels.

Urban living increases employment prospects and consumption opportunities but also comes with higher living costs, congestion, pollution, crime, traffic, etc.

Urban areas are better for making more money and exposing people to new opportunities. They are also more concentrated in terms of knowledge and education. Specialized goods/services cannot exist in areas where demand is too low to support their existence, and some of those good include things like theater, museums, live sports, specialized medical practices, unique restaurants, etc. Similarly, a larger population facilitates greater diversity, which is closely correlated with happiness as well.

The report simply shows that people living in urban areas are less happy, but it cannot explain why. Rather, the authors pose a series of speculative questions and iterate that more research is needed. Maybe it's the high cost of living, coupled with the reduced living space. Perhaps it's the traffic and/or lack of public transportation in most large American cities, leading to longer commutes. Maybe, it's the fact that, in large urban centers, nobody is ever truly alone and quiet with themselves. Probably, it is a mix of these and other factors. My personal assumption is that if you asked 100 unhappy urban dwellers why they are unhappy, you might get 100 different responses. The data is clear about one thing, however, and that is the reduced happiness of people who live in large cities.

Large cities are overwhelming and thrilling because it takes time to really know a place. I didn't feel at home in Southern California for years, and even now, half a decade into my time here, I'm constantly discovering new places, meeting new people, re-learning how to thrive in this fast-paced, half-crazed, nearly dystopian landscape of freeways and strangers and art and desperation.

It takes time to fully understand ourselves too, and to understand what happiness means. For some people, happiness is waking up in a bustling city, walking to their favorite coffee shop, and catching the subway to work. For others, happiness is having a large backyard, a couple of kids, and a floppy-eared puppy. For others, happiness is living in a tiny town with two bars, a barber shop, a church, and ample parking. For me, happiness is running across a bridge over a river; escaping to a starry night and forgetting everything, if only for a moment. Happiness is also returning to the din of traffic and phone calls and squeezing as much out of each day as I possibly can. Anything can happen, and it's wonderful and terrifying and thrilling all at once.

P.S. Read more about population density and decreased happiness here, read this report about which cities worldwide rank the highest in terms of overall happiness, or listen to Taylor Swift's new album (and be happy about it).


Sarah Rose

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