Urbanitis - Do You Suffer From It?

Don't know about you, but I’m sick of living in the city. The traffic, the loss of darkness, the noise, the pollution, the loss of lasting community involvement, the overwhelm of crowds and endless amounts of concrete…and the constant desire for a better life.

So why do I stick around? Good question. Why does anyone?

Cities put us on what feels like a perpetual psychological treadmill where, in some way, our lives are not our own. We're part of—and exist for—the system. We exist to serve. We exist to consume. And it works best when we forget ourselves in the process.

It’s not likely to get any better either. In 2007, for the first time in human history, over 50% of us live in urban centres, many of which count tens of millions of residents. Urbanites are a growing body of people, and its growth only amplifies the problem.

My concerns about living shoulder to shoulder with millions of others first emerged in Japan, while travelling from Tokyo to Mount Fuji back in 1999. My classmates and I travelled for over two hours, hopping from one form of public transportation to another, constantly surrounded by concrete, despite being told we were now in the “country”. I still remember the tightness I felt, the slight anxiety of feeling “stuck” and wanting to break free of my surroundings. That experience was sufficient to tell me I wouldn’t likely do well in a megacity.

Why Are Cities A Problem For Humans?

I think there are five main reasons we don't thrive as a collective in cities:

  1. We’re not machines.
  2. They’re expensive.
  3. They make us sick.
  4. We lose our identity.
  5. We lose our independence.

1. We’re not machines.

Living in a city means you become part of a complex system. In order for the system to work, a great number of rules are necessary. These rules evolve over time and money. Many rules are found in a city's law's and many others are left unstated, but understood and usually followed by  citizens.

These rules include:

The whole idea of an “hourly wage”—now practically universal in the modern world—came out of the time regimen of the industrial age.

...For the first generations living through this transformation, the invention of “time discipline” was deeply disorienting. Today, most of us in the developed world—and increasingly in the developing world—have been acclimated to the strict regimen of clock time from an early age. (Sit in on your average kindergarten classroom and you’ll see the extensive focus on explaining and reinforcing the day’s schedule.) The natural rhythms of tasks and leisure had to be forcibly replaced with an abstract grid.
— p. 174, How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson
  • Following schedules in order to benefit from services such as public transportation, sanitation services, educational services, entertainment services, health services, and many more.
  • Exchanging money for services from others and following our employer’s rules and schedules in order to be successful.
  • Being predictable to make others comfortable that they know what they can expect from us and when. 
  • Giving up of ourselves in the name of safety by following stringent codes of conduct in all aspects of life, living in artificial light 24/7, and in constant fear of strangers.  
Today’s night sky now shines six thousand times brighter than it did just one hundred years ago. Artificial light has transformed the way we work and sleep...
— p. 197, How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson

The issue here is that this stringent adherence to a schedule, to extensive rules of conduct and the need to pay for services with no other currency than cash (because it's hard & rather unnatural to barter with people you don't know) is a fairly recent phenomenon. Never have our lives been as orchestrated and as rules-based as they are now.

And, deep down, we know it’s not normal. We can literally feel it in our exhaustion, our constant stress, our constant preoccupations. Yet, somehow, we can't help but feel that somehow something is wrong with us.

2. They’re expensive.

Cities aren't cost-efficient for the individual. The value for dollar is lower in cities because it's inversely related to its size.

Transportation experts have suggested that developed countries are hitting ‘peak car,’ rubbing up against the maximum amount of time that human beings are willing to spend traveling on a daily basis.

...[M]ost people would be better off sticking with a job closer to home, even if it pays less. To offset the happiness costs of going from no commute to a 22-minute commute, the average person would need to see their income rise by over 1/3—and that’s just to break even.
— p. 63 & p. 65, Happy Money Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton

City dwellers lament the cost of all the essentials: food and lodging, housing and transportation. Even the essentials cost more. And why do we pay the premium? We exchange it for the proximity of the services and conveniences we don’t want to live without…assuming we don’t have a two-hour commute.

Oh, and the commute, a way of reducing the cost of living in the “BIG City,” is the single largest cost in quality of life for city-dwellers. Therefore, the cost goes beyond the quantitative…it erodes our ability to feel content.

3. They make us sick.

Cities make us ill in surprising ways. They make us physically and psychologically unwell.

Cities make us physically unwell because we're:

[E]xercise itself is literally like medicine, as a growing body of evidence is beginning to show.

In a detailed and revealing comparison, the Stanford scientist John Ioannidis paired more than 300 randomized clinical drug trials with the results of 57 studies of exercise, and found that in nearly every case, exercise proved just as effective as the medications, and sometimes better, at staving off death from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
— p. 181-2, Spring Chicken by Bill Gifford
[P]eople find it gratifying to exercise control—not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective—changing things, influencing things, making things happen—is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behaviour from infancy onward is simply and expression of this penchant for control.
— p. 20, Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  • Less active due to longer commutes that make walking and biking non-options, and due to lack of access to green space for play and sport.
  • More dependent on lower-quality prepared foods due to smaller kitchens, a more frantic schedule and cost.
  • More likely to experience vitamin  deficiencies due to lack of sun exposure and low-quality foods.
  • More likely to catch contagious colds and flus due to population density and shared infrastructure.
  • Living with elevated cortisol levels, which occurs when we don’t feel in control of our lives. These elevated levels lead to chronic inflammation—which, along with poor nutrition and lack of exercise—make us more prone to heart disease, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other related ailments.

Cities make us psychologically unwell because we're:

[A]ny large-scale, lively, progressive super-tribe must inevitably contain a high proportion of intensely frustrated status-seekers. The dumb contentment of a rigid, stagnant society is replaced by the feverish longings and anxieties of a mobile, developing one.
— p. 58, The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris
When we are lonely we not only react more intensely to the negatives; we also experience less of a soothing uplift from the positives.
— ― John T. Cacioppo, Loneliness
[Older people in Okinawa, one of the Blue Zones] talk about the importance of ikigai, which translates as “a reason to get up in the morning”, in short, it’s your purpose.
— p. 92, Spring Chicken by Bill Gifford
In the modern world, alas, cortisol merely makes people in office jobs get fat...Another very interesting study found that people who were lonely, which is one of the most intense forms of psychological stress, had their genes for inflammation activated at a much higher rate than those who felt more socially connected.
— p. 238-9, Spring Chicken by Bill Gifford
[Status Anxiety] A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.
— p. viii, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
  • Surrounded by an incredible number of marketing messages. Marketers are in the business of telling us what’s missing from our lives and makes us feel we’re not complete until we solve a problem we didn’t even know we had. That can put us in a constant state of “I’ll be happy when…” And it can lead to spending money on products and services that do nothing to increase our happiness.
  • Lonely. Living in high-density areas makes us feel more alone than ever. It’s impossible to get to know everyone, and we start to know fewer people. The effort seems overwhelming, and so we recoil and become less open to others than we would be in a smaller community, with social media as our artificial escape from the day-to-day. 
  • Without purpose. We don’t feel that what we do serves a greater purpose, whether that purpose is work, love or some other driver. We don’t see meaning in what we do, in the unique value we bring to an endeavour, and it can have a great impact on our identity. This lack of purpose is more likely in an urban environment due to the lack of community, the reductive nature of work at large firms and the inability to see the impact of our efforts.
  • Anxious and depressed. Our inward focus grows and we worry about and obsess over more aspects of our  lives. Our constant worry about the system and its expectations makes us question our value and abilities to fit in, to be relevant by external measures. We can easily feel expendable. This worry can have a significant impact on our happiness, and our longevity.
Apart from the personal isolation there is also the direct pressure of physical crowding. Each kind of animal has evolved to exist in a certain amount of living space. In both the animal zoo and the human zoo this space is severely curtailed and the consequences can be serious.
— p. 138, The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris

Interestingly, some of our behaviour is not unlike what we witness in animals in captivity. The lifestyle is not that different: we live in confined spaces built and maintained by others that look nothing like an open habitat, our food is prepared for us, and we feel we can’t leave our circumstances.

4. We lose our identity.

[There’s] seventy years of evidence that our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.
— George Valiant (via The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor)

We’re disconnected from others in a large city.  We find ourselves far from family and other supportive networks that a smaller community provides. Our networks start to consist of reciprocal relationships that are interest-driven (work, leisure, learning, special interests) and are expected to last only as long as the shared interest does. These networks don’t consider of value our entire selves, just a portion of it and that loss of lasting, deep ties hurts us in the long run. This reductionism can easily lead us to equate our self-worth with our occupation.

Try to maintain reciprocal, short-lived networks like those described above in a smaller community and folks look at you sideways. There’s not other way to be than to mix professional and personal relationships when we live in a small population. It’s understood that we’re more than what we “do” and that balance matters when you see fellow residents at work and at play. And we’re more likely to help each other "just because". We’re more than our occupation, unlike what LinkedIn and the typical “What do you do?” cocktail party question would have you believe.

5. We lose our independence.

I dare you to try not to purchase products and services when you live in an urban setting. We pay for nearly everything we need and want that we don’t ourselves do for a living, everything from parking to entertainment to trades of all sorts to maintain our dwelling and personal appearance. We pay for everything to the point that I wonder when we’ll start to pay for oxygen.

There are three main reasons for the learned helplessness we exhibit in urban settings:

  • The cost of space
  • Convenience
  • Perception

The Cost of Space

The cost of space in urban centers has lead to smaller living spaces that have done away with storage, reduced kitchen sizes and reduced space for entertainment and leisure (living rooms and backyards)…unless one has purchased these things by taking on a longer commute, which has lead to having the space, but not the time to make use of it.

Smaller living spaces have lead us to do away with items that make us self-sufficient: small home appliances, tools, furniture and space to hold gatherings. We need to buy nearly everything we need and want because we've given up the means—and therefore the skills—to be self-sufficient. Some of us don’t even make our own coffee anymore!


And who cares about having the means to be self-sufficient when getting everything we need is so convenient? We don’t have to wait for anything in large urban settings. We can get many products and services delivered right to our door, sometimes within the hour. We can get instant access to entertainment and we can look up just about any information at the touch of a button. Given this convenience, it’s no surprise that we don’t desire to be more self-sufficient. It takes too much time and effort compared to just paying someone else to do it. 


One of the most pernicious effect of marketing is that we start to believe that manufactured is better than homemade. What we can make for ourselves can’t be anywhere near as good or as attractive as a brand name item or service.

We want to fit in. We want to conform and one of the easiest ways to do that is to be like everyone else. We want to have the right clothes, the right services, the right foods, the right entertainment. We want to look right, smell right, know the right things, like the right things, and behave the right ways.

Right means normal. Wrong means messy, unique, slow, weird, unpredictable, natural…kind of like our grandmother’s garden. Self-sufficiency isn’t uniform. It’s unique, it’s slower and it adds to our quality of life because it makes us feel pretty great about ourselves—thanks to a little something called self-efficacy. But, because we’ve embraced learned helplessness, this last fact is soon forgotten and challenging to rediscover.

Why Do We Feel Drawn to Cities…And Why Do We Stay?

After all the reasons urbanization is costing us greatly in quality of life and longevity, why do we move to urban centers and why do we stay? Three reasons come to mind.

  1. We fear missing out.
  2. We become dependent on them.
  3. We’re specialists.

1. We fear missing out.

Under the influence of [the endowment and loss aversion] biases, we commonly overvalue what we have and we consider giving it up to be a loss.
— p. 285, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

It’s attractive to think we have all the options we could possibly want or need close by. The “what if” questions that pop to mind can easily keep us from seeking more remote locations. It’s our tendency to focus on what we’ll lose by moving away as opposed to what we’ll gain. Living further away requires us to plan further ahead, to deal with not having something we want when we want it. It can be scary to think of having to do without…even if all it means is not being able to buy our latte in the morning or being able to go out to our favourite restaurant or shopping mall at the drop of a hat.  

What we have to gain is far less tangible, other than lower cost of living while gaining better health, better relationships, more time, less stress, better sleep, and yes, possibly a happier life.

2. We become dependent on cities.

Due to learned helplessness of having others do nearly everything for us, we lose our belief in our ability to be resourceful problem solvers. How could we possibly survive? What if something goes wrong with the house, the car, our health? How will we maintain our property ourselves? How will we prepare our own food? How will we entertain ourselves when there’s no access to distractions of all sorts? How can we learn to spend time…*gasp* alone, with no bustling metropolis surrounding us? It can feel overwhelming not to have access to everything we’ve come to depend on on a daily or weekly basis.

3. We’re specialists.

Increasingly, we grow up to learn and do one thing we call our profession or career. Cities call for increased specialization of task and responsibility, and—regardless of whether or not it’s good for the individual—it’s good for the economy. No doubt a great deal of this specialization is extremely effective in the urban setting but becomes far less relevant to employment beyond its perimeter when the work does not require an individual to be on location perform the work.

Questions around how one can make a living away from a major city, such as  “How will we make a living in a place where our specialty isn’t relevant?” are  reasonable. That’s where the ability to avoid defining ourselves by what we do is a real asset.

[D]isciplinary boundaries can…serve as blinders, keeping you from the bigger idea that becomes visible only when you cross those borders.
— p. 253, How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson

There’s a great deal of satisfaction in pursuing serial careers and it can make us better versions of ourselves as a result, not to mention better at our current occupation. We understand more of the world, we’ve tried more things, and we grow to believe we can tackle just about any professional challenge. Indeed, most great inventions have come about thanks to specialists who have ventured outside their chosen field. 

Will We Rethink Urbanization?

...[T]he fundamental needs of a vibrant economy and the fundamental needs of a happy individual are not necessarily the same. So what motivates people to work hard every day to do the things that will satisfy the economy’s needs but not their own? ...[E]conomies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. If and only if people hold this false belief will they do enough producing, procuring, and consuming to sustain their economies.
— p. 218-9, Stumbing On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

I doubt the trend toward urbanization will reverse itself, at least over the coming decades. Its pull is too great thanks to the messages we receive regarding its value from nearly every stakeholder who benefits from it. I just hope that the dis-ease it causes becomes so great that it creates the need for us to rethink how we live in high-population areas. I’m hopeful that this can be made possible thanks alternate measurements, such as the gross national happiness index, that are challenging GDP as an indicator of quality of life.

For now, I’ll depend on what’s under my control when it comes to urban living. Despite living in a city of less than one million, I know that I’ll be moving to a less populous area in my future. What modern conveniences might I want to hold on to no matter where I move to? Electricity, the Internet, a good-sized town within 30 minutes’ drive and a car. I’ll seek adventure when I want to, and it likely won’t be of the instant variety, unless a walk in the woods counts...and that will suit me just fine.

Want to find a cure for (or at least address some of the underlying symptoms of) urban living?

If we are condemned to a complex social existence, as it seems we are, then the trick is to ensure that we make use of it, rather than let it make use of us.
— p. 200, The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris

If you want to make life just a little bit better, no matter where you live, you may find one or more of the following resources useful. They've helped me increase my awareness of different aspects of the “cost of living” in an urban center and I’ve been making better choices as a result.

Over to you: Have any thoughts about urban life? Any other resources to suggest? 


Online Resources

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