Andersen: Cities can make us meanies |

Andersen: Cities can make us meanies

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

A new study has found that urban life may by incompatible with happiness — even with niceness. When people disparage the “New York attitude,” it isn’t just geographical snobbishness; there is psychological truth to it.

New evidence shows that cities can make us unhappy and stressed out. Urban strain can make life an ongoing turmoil through an assault on the natural senses. In short, urban living is unnatural.

“City dwellers have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers,” stated the study as reported in The New York Times.

It’s not that city dwellers are suddenly going crazy and prompting these findings. It is that comparative analysis of rural areas is showing that people who live beyond the sturm und drang of cities often lead better, more balanced lives.

Considering that our earliest development as a species took place in wilderness settings, and that our sensory systems evolved at a walking pace, is it any wonder that our natural systems are pegged out by fast speeds and high tech?

Now that we travel at hundreds of times the speed of walking, our natural systems are overloaded. Cities are only a recent experiment begun roughly 10,000 years ago at the advent of the Agricultural Revolution, and yet billions live within their high-stress environments.

The human species lived in wilderness a thousand times longer than we have lived in technological civilization, so our natural sensitivities have been defiled by congestion, noise, pollution and a growing addiction to electronic devices.

Time magazine reported recently that “digital detox” is becoming a universal need as our devices (thank you, Steve Jobs, et. al.) take over our already hectic lives. Time also features an article about how personal float tanks are now providing respite from rising levels of stress, offering a Band-Aid for symptoms of sensory overload.

Electronic gadgetry is unnatural to us, and urban dwellers are especially susceptible to technological domination and industrial pathological impacts. The whole of urban life is proving to create global epidemics of dysfunction because our deep primitive selves are unable to cope.

“A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health,” reported the study regarding the physical effects on the brain of spending time in nature. “Most of us today live in cities and spend far less time outside in green, natural spaces than people did several generations ago.”

Physicians already know that patients exposed to green plants and to natural settings heal more quickly when recovering from illness and injuries. Tests have been conducted among the hospitalized, and those with windows to parks recover more quickly than those with no view of nature.

“Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks, and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside,” said the study.

When I take combat veterans into the wilderness surrounding Aspen with my Huts for Vets program, they feel a sense of elation from walking on a wooded trail along a rushing stream. They smile, feel happy and gain positive inputs from their communion with the natural world.

A recent news item suggested that it might be best to leave as-yet-uncontacted primitive people alone rather than to introduce current culture and technology to their isolated lives. This makes ultimate sense for establishing control groups as counterparts to the urban experiment that is now revealing serious long-term flaws.

Meanwhile, the industrial capitalistic machine is hell-bent on converting nature into capital, a progression that is deemed valuable by rich and powerful materialists who hold political sway in the world.

Before they are allowed to destroy all the natural capital upon which our earliest genesis is founded, there needs to be an honest assessment as to the trade-offs. Are we happier as technologists or as naturalists? Take a walk in the woods and find out.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at

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