Humans Weren’t Meant To Live In Cities

Science says so:

The study found that people in general were less happy in areas of greater population density. The report’s authors see this is as support for the savannah theory because we would naturally feel uneasy in larger groups if — as evidence they cite suggests — our brains evolved for functioning in groups of about 150 people {…}

The study discovered, though, that the negative effect of the presence of lots of people is more pronounced among people of average intelligence. They propose that our smartest ancestors were better able to adapt to larger groups on the savannah due to a greater strategic flexibility and innate ingenuity, and so their descendants feel less stressed by urban environments today.

And you can’t argue with science.

That wasn’t the only interesting finding, though. Even while they were better at adapting at being around a lot of people, they were also… better off alone?

The data they analyzed supports the assumption that good friendships — and a few good ones is better than lots of weaker ones — do significantly increase life satisfaction for most people.

In highly intelligent people, though, the finding is reversed: Smart people feel happier alone than when others, even good friends, are around. A “healthy” social life actually leaves highly intelligent people with less life satisfaction. Is it because their desires are more aspirational and goal-oriented, and other people are annoyingly distracting?

That they’re better at being alone than the normals would not be surprising because maybe they’re just more adaptable around a lot or no people. Interesting that they’re happier that way, though.

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47 thoughts on “Humans Weren’t Meant To Live In Cities

  1. Or that “smart people” (or at least, “sort-of-smart and deeply-weird people,” which is how I’d describe myself) had such negative childhood experiences with peers that they have a hard time trusting people as adults.

    I kinda-sorta like people (well, some people) but there are points where I just hit a wall and am DONE interacting face-to-face and need to withdraw. It’s not quite so bad as me breaking down in tears or dissociating when I hit that point, but I can tell I am distinctly uncomfortable and my desire to make some excuse and get out outweighs my desire to not seem rude (by leaving early)

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  2. Smart people might feel happier alone because they get to do what they want rather than have to follow along with the group activity. You could read, practice a musical instrument, perform scientific experiments, etc.

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  3. I’m divided on the entire social life thing. When your with a group, it generally means you have to do what the group wants. It really cuts into your reading time for one thing. Yet, getting excluded from social events is also deeply frustrating and isolating. There are many times when you want to participate in something to. It also makes you wonder what people really think about you. People seem to like you based on interactions but if your likable than how come you can’t get a social invitation. Social media naturally makes this worse because you see records.

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  4. I have no prob being alone. I can go a month with no interaction, other than my cat, and be fine. Then I can go out and do stuff with a friend or two and I’m good for another month. I see the GF once a week–mainly due to distance-but I’d only see her twice a week if we were closer.

    Need my space man….

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  5. The study is paywalled, so I can’t see the details, and the abstract doesn’t go into a lot of detail. But:

    1. Cities are expensive
    2. Intelligence is correlated with income
    3. Economic pressure creates a lot of stress

    So that, at least, is one thing I want to see how they dealt with in the study.

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          • Maybe. Gotfa say I’m a little hesitant to make too much of what’s going on without some look at controlling for wealth or income.

            Also, of course, there’s the issue where the causation might be the other way (if it exists at all). There’s evidence intelligence can be reduced by stress, and improved by the removal of stress.

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                • The age old story of Economics vs Happiness, I guess!

                  More seriously, to whatever extent it’s true it does actually recommend that we rethink what we consider the urban ideal. Try to accommodate some forms of NIMBYism to reduce unwanted density, and encourage people to spread out between cities to mitigate the stresses of the higher cost of living that come from everyone trying to live in the same five places. It’s all much more central-planning than I would prefer, but that would be the overall direction.

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                  • What I’m finding is that I like living g in cities but prefer them to be on a human scale. A population in the mid six figures between 300K and 600k is good. Dense enough to be walkable and transit oriented but not too dense.

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                        • I’ll be interested to see if chooses similar places — cities of a particular size, but in a multi-million person metro area in the West. Almost any of the major metro areas in the West can provide at least neighborhoods that meet Lee’s criteria for transit and/or walkability. And those would be saner than Richard Florida is these days — he seems determined that nothing other than a revival of the 50k-to-150k Rust Belt cities is suitable. Such cities emerged at a particular time, in a particular place. Other than a few college towns, they are basically nonexistent from the Great Plains west.

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                      • Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, and Seattle on the West Coast. Boston and DC on the East Coast. Jersey City and Newark have problems but are also something like this. Denver is kind of like this from my brief experience there but not quite because of a lower population density. San Francisco is about the upper level population wise for the type of city I’m looking for.

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                        • To pick nits on numbers, other than Oakland and Sacramento, all of your named cities fall either above or below your 300K-600K limits.

                          The non-nit thing is that all of your named cities are part of a metro area that runs to multiple millions of people, where the boundaries between cities are essentially invisible.

                          That doesn’t make your criteria — more reasonable size for local government but still real city size (say, 250K to 1M), walkability, transit — bad things; it does suggest that finding those in a city without larger surrounding populations is hard. And probably that you have to look for specific areas where the walkability/transit conditions hold. That’s my complaint (see above) with the current version of Richard Florida — he seems to be demanding something that existed in a particular part of the country, at a particular time, with a particular level of “cheap” transit technology.

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                • Saul Degraw: So why did humans invent cities if we weren’t meant to live in them? Suppose this is true, we aren’t putting the genie back in the bottle and going to small towns or nomad again.

                  There’s a school of thought* that the settled agricultural communities of the ‘dawn of civilization’ were a lot unhealthier than the hunter-gatherer communities they supplanted (on metrics like life expectancy and disease and average height/weight) and we didn’t rebound to that early level until midway through the industrial revolution.

                  But what the agricultural communities had that the hunter gatherers did not was baby making capacity, and so by sheer numbers, and generations of more numbers, the settled agricultural lifestyle won out.

                  I’m not sure if you can make the same case for cities, but you might.

                  *I don’t know to the extent its been discredited because it’s not correct, in addition to people have taken the wrong lessons from it (e.g. paleo diets)

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                  • I don’t know about the healthiness of the people, but I’ve generally read that had we not developed agriculture, we would likely not have had the great flowering of human culture; that agriculture allows for a class of humans who don’t have to forage for food, so they can write books or music, or do science, or….be a politician, I suppose.

                    It’s thought some of the Native American (in what is today the US) “cities” like Cahokia were dependent on agriculture (and, perhaps, an “underclass” of people who worked the land so the “overclass” could have mounds built) and some kind of climate change led to a collapse of pre-European Settlement agriculture in the US, and so the remaining tribes mostly went back to a more hunter-gatherer type lifestyle.

                    (Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist and some of these ideas may be outdated. I like to read about pre-history but it’s hard for me to determine what ideas have been discredited)

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                    • yeah, I got to think someone has comprehensively synced up the timing of the various ‘little’ climate shifts we’ve had over the last 1000-2000 years (e.g. the little ice age) to the timing of when we think settlements in the greater Mississippi valley and the South West were established and abandoned.

                      I think from memory the latest timing is that the settlements in the South West were already abandoned (or displaced) all in the pre-columbian era, (which points to climate change, even as a second order effect of it, if someone had to move north or south and displaced whomever was already there), but the so called Mound Builders (who were as far southeast as present day Macon in middle Georgia) were still there into the 1600s. And while had no direct European contact, it’s certainly plausible that the people Columbus et al first met on the mainland themselves had contact with more interior peoples (and spread a plague that wiped almost everyone out until the Europeans actually showed up for good)

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              • That’s a fair point!

                I have less problem with the argument that humans aren’t meant to live in cities than the attempts to say, “Oh, well, this correlation with intelligence means that you need to be smart to navigate city life!”

                I still think the income thing needs to be better explored, though, at the very least. If the bulk of the story is just that cities are expensive to live in, we should YIMBY away.

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              • I wouldn’t read it that way.

                If anything, you could interpret it as: For humans temperamentally ill-suited to city living, city living adds stress, which in turn hampers their intelligence.

                Presumably any living situation is the same – both big city and small-town living, shared accomodations and a place of one’s own, a house with a big yard that demands upkeep and a bachelor apartment with no opportunity to garden and tinker, etc. If you’re temperamentally ill-suited to your living arrangement, it will add stress to your life.

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                • And why doesn’t small-town living show up in such studies as causing stress to those temperamentally ill-suited to it? Because they’ve already moved to the city.

                  It’s a lot easier to move from a small town to a city and find a job than the other direction, so folks who’d be happier in a small town are probably more likely to find themselves effectively stuck where they are.

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              • Humans aren’t evolved to have a low child mortality rate, and if you slice the data right you can find a negative relationship between children surviving to age 5 and happiness. It’s entirely possible that there is an actual causal relationship between living in a city and being less happy, but I’m not inclined to treat “post hoc evo psych explanation”+”correlation on data full of confounding variables” as particularly useful for updating my priors on what’s actually good for human flourishing.

                I know it’s said mostly in jest, but I honestly think that “science says” is a genuinely unhelpful way of framing stuff like this. As disenchantment takes an ever deeper hold on society the temptation to seek alternative sources for answers will lead to more and more people trusting scientists to answer questions they either can’t or shouldn’t.

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                • RC! So good to see you!

                  But yeah, my comments here are mostly tongue-in-cheek. I think there actually could be something to the notion that density having a negative effect on our well-being, but it’s based more on what we’ve sort of picked up about other things (like Pillsy’s comments on stress) than anything a study of this sort can tell us.

                  Not that that’s going to stop me from having a little fun with the concept.

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                  • Twitter is bad for me, but there are people on it I like interacting with, and several of them are on this website, so it’s a convenient arrangement.

                    I’m kinda grumpily anti-city myself, but more from the “cities have horribly vulnerable supply lines and become centers of mass starvation when things break down” point of view.

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  6. There seem to be some contradictions in the idea that smarter humans can handle urban and dense living better and with less stress but are also happiest alone.

    Then again, this does feel kind of intuitive to me personally. I’m pretty smart. I like cities but I also like being alone often enough.

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    • , there’s no contradiction. The authors are talking about friendships, not physical proximity to other people. You can easily be living in a city of millions and be quite solitary. I’ve experienced the full range from a village of ~200 to Chicago. If anything, a friendless existence is actually easier to accomplish in a city than a very small town. People think you’re a weirdo in the small town whereas your neighbors won’t bother you much in the city.

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      • That makes sense.

        If you like to eat a meal in a cheerful setting around other people, but aren’t that interested in or good at maintaining the kind of close friendships that will get you frequent dinner invitations, cities have cheap & cheerful restaurants where you can get a table for one.

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  7. Several semi-connected thoughts…

    – I’m always wary of studies purporting to measure and compare fuzzy, abstract stuff like happiness and satisfaction. OTOH, I’m reminded that it’s often much easier to measure a difference or change in something than to measure the absolute value of that thing.

    – When they speak of “intelligence” it should be kept in mind that they really mean IQ scores. This opens up a morass in my opinion. Other soc psy results suggest that liberals have higher IQ scores than conservatives. Then there’s the Big Sort where liberals are sorting to urban areas and conservatives to rural areas (or just staying there).

    I would suggest perhaps that fields like social psychology preferentially attract “liberals” and, since the IQ tests are constructed by psychologists – and therefore liberals – what IQ scores really reflect is a liberal conception of what it means to be “smart”. There’s also a lamppost effect whereby only those aspects of intelligence that can be tested in a multiple guess fashion are part of the quotient.

    So taken together with the, practically definitional, observation that liberals are more open to new experiences and ideas, and that cities provide more of both, it’s hardly surprising that folks who tend to score higher on tests that (inadvertently) skew to the favor of people with a liberal disposition would be happier in those circumstances.

    The bit about high IQ people being happier alone may actually reflect the difference between introverts and extroverts, which may have a similar IQ score skew, as well as folks on “the Spectrum”.

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      • Not least of which, the kind of mood I am in on the day I take the survey can very strongly affect my answers. If you asked me “Are you happy in the town where you live” the answer would be VERY different on a day when I’d been to a program at the small local quilt shop vs. a day I had fought the Wal-mart for something I needed but that isn’t carried locally.

        (I know people who bring donuts or similar to class on the day that there is going to “just happen” to be a teaching evaluation [which we schedule in advance] because it does seem to have a beneficial effect on the results. I’ve never done it because I’m slightly repulsed by the idea but if I were up for tenure right now, and my past evals were rocky? I’d consider doing it)

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    • Could be. IQ also tends to correlate with educational attainment, and which also tends to correlate with more liberal social views.

      Of course, there are other things that can be happening here, in terms of causal direction (which also is true of the income correlation I mentioned above). For instance, the abilities that line up with IQ could themselves become a class marker, giving people a boost in the work place where coworkers and supervisors recognize you as “one of us”.

      Anyway, I’m less averse to trying to explore the world with even pretty flawed measures like survey questions and IQ test results. My problem here (beyond the considering some stuff I can’t believe they didn’t consider) is building all these eco-psych Just So stories on top of that.

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      • Agree. It isn’t the study itself, which is trying to explore something with imperfect tools, it’s the way such studies are treated in the media (who typically don’t talk about methodology and the various strengths and weaknesses, etc.).

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        • Well to be fair to the media in this particular case, the study really got way over its skies in terms of “Oh this means savanna hypothesis!” There were more caveats in the paper, but not a lot more. The media should do better, but some researchers don’t exactly communicate responsibly, and Kanazawa himself has done some popular science writing that was both laughably and offensively bad.

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  8. One of the interesting things in the studies is how non-physical contact is counted. Phone calls between friends count. Speculatively, Skype or similar voice-plus-video calls count even more. Text messaging doesn’t count. With respect to the intelligence axis, I wonder how multi-paragraph posts and comments on a blog count?

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  9. They propose that our smartest ancestors were better able to adapt to larger groups on the savannah due to a greater strategic flexibility and innate ingenuity, and so their descendants feel less stressed by urban environments today.

    If this is saying what I think this is trying to say, it’s super duper dumb.

    The ancestors of the vast majority of people in the world, the smart and the not so smart alike, that currently live in cities, lived ‘in the country’ a little as 100 plus years ago. Maybe go back to 150 to be safe. There is no ‘city gene’ that’s been able to be selected for since the dawn of civilization – because cities reset themselves so often.
    (Rome got down to about 20K people in the trough after the empire fell)

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  10. When I was a kid living in Michigan (points to Venus Mount on palm of right hand), we had only a few types of ethnic food. So few, in fact, that we considered “Polish Food” to be ethnic. (We also had Chinese Restaurants and Pizza Parlors.)

    Now that I am old and live in a much less rural part of the country, I have dozens of types of food to eat. We’ve got three or four different variants of Central/South American, we’ve got five or six different kinds of Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and all types of regional European restaurants.

    My happiness has increased dramatically.

    I think that the problem is that happiness is pretty much always a relational state and we’re living in a post-maslow world. People who live in cities have more access to the joys that follow wanting to want things.

    People who live in ruralia? If they’re lucky, they’ve got an Olive Garden nearby.

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    • Polish food isn’t “ethnic”?

      (I say this because when I was a kid, people who wanted to tell “Polish jokes” – a big staple in NE Ohio – would pretend they were euphemizing it by saying “certain ethnic” instead. Some of the people who made Polish jokes were, in fact, of Polish heritage. It was….odd)

      (Growing up in Ohio, in my little town we had a pizza place and a Mexican place. The Mexican place was pretty authentic – run by a woman from Mexico City. The next town over had a pretty good Chinese restaurant – not a buffet like you see now but a place that liked to do the ‘family style’ seating where four or five dishes were ordered and shared. Also the Greek Orthodox church did a weekly gyros lunch for a while – good cheap food and I think it supported some of the charity they did. There was a very well-respected (and fancy) Lebanese restaurant in the city where my dad worked)

      Where I live now, we have an Italian place (which is actually run, IIRC, by someone from Croatia) and some tex-mex places, and a sort-of-indifferent “Asian” place. And a crapton of fast-food places (university town) and an IHOP and an Applebee’s.

      What I find hard to find? Unusual cooking ingredients. Anything “ethnic” that isn’t on the “Hispanic” aisle at the Wal-Mart has to be mail-ordered. We have a small South Asian community here and I wonder if they cook traditional and where they get stuff – probably, they drive to Dallas. (I wonder if the rich-folk in town either just put up with driving to Dallas periodically, or hire someone to go do their shopping for them, ‘cos I’ve not yet figured out where in town they get their groceries)

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        • I was a kid at the far western end of the Midwest, and there was lots of “ethnic” food, it just wasn’t the ethnic groups we think about today. The NW corner of Iowa was heavily settled by Scandinavian immigrants recruited when the Great Northern Railway was being built — ethnic was Danish and Swedish and Dutch. The SE corner of Nebraska was heavily Serbs and Czechs. Omaha had an Irish wave and an Italian wave and a south German wave (Bohemia and such). All of them brought their food and customs with them. When I was 16, I had a heavy enough five-o’clock shadow that I could hit any bohunk bar in South Omaha around quitting time and get a beer with no questions asked. There are some odd lasting effects — local steak houses in Omaha still tend to serve fried ravioli as an appetizer, a tradition started when the Caniglia family’s restaurants were the place to go for steak.

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        • It seemed pretty common in the 70s and 80s for immigrants from South East Asia and the Philippines to open a place in American suburbia selling “Chinese Food”, but by the 90s more likely than not to sell cuisine marketed under their actual country of origin. It also seemed to be the case at the time for immigrants from Central and South America to sell ‘Mexican food’

          There were exceptions of course – the neighborhood near where the Americans was supposed to take place had (and has) a substantial Vietnamese population displaced from the war and had restaurants and take out places that were specifically Vietnamese. e.g. Spring Rolls, not Egg Rolls. (though the closest place to us, New Moon, I think said “Vietnamese/Chinese” on the menu.

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        • Oh, yeah, I was 8 in 1977, so I remember it. We had Pizza Bazaar (which I always have to think about because we called it Bizarre Pizza and I spell its real name wrong) and Noble Roman’s and Parasson’s…..not terribly authentic. I think Marcelita’s opened around 1980. The Chinese restaurant had been there as long as I can remember and I get the sense that they dated from at least the 1960s.

          The Lebanese place had been there since the 60s, I think – that area had a lot of immigration in the past from what used to be called the Levant, and also Greece/Macedonia/Cyprus. And the Slavic immigrants were a big part of the population, though in the WASP town where I lived people tended to be prejudiced against them as “lower class.” (I think many of the people from Slavic countries came in for steelworking? Maybe?

          There was also a small French place for a while. I got to eat there once (my parents took me there when I was taking French in high school) but I confess I didn’t like the food, most “fancy” food is too ‘fancy” for me.

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