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Cities and mental health

By Karli Vezina

What does it feel like to live in a big city? That's what a team of University of Chicago researchers set out to study. They looked at city networks and how people use and move around in these networks. Since previous research suggested more social interactions led to “higher rates of innovation and wealth production,” they set out to see if the same could be said psychologically.

The study, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at who is connected to whom in their social networks and why, and how this relates to depression. They found that on average, people have more contacts and connections across a wider variety of functions (like co-workers and friends) living in a bigger city. Since isolation is a big factor for depression, it seems that big city life inspires more interaction and more socialization which is good for our mental health.

Professor of ecology and evolution and associate faculty in sociology at the University of Chicago, Luís Bettencourt, was one of three authors of the study. He said, “It all fits to produce the main result of the paper: That the incidence of depression is actually lower on average in larger cities.”

When we’re out running errands, saying ‘hello’ to the butcher and ‘how’s it going’ to the cashier at the store, we’re not just being civil, it’s more than that. These connections stimulate our minds and give us purpose, the researchers say.

The team hopes to continue studying the psychological benefits of life in the city, in contrast to what we usually hear about larger cities: crime, poverty and inequality. They also hope policy-makers will use this data to build a better future for mental health in their communities.

Bettencourt told the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, “Mental health and cognition are the basis for agency and behaviour, and urban environments do change how people think and act.” The next time you’re walking downtown feeling like Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, (I’m walkin’ here!) Remember, it’s good for you.


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