At long last, science has confirmed what everyone from Tim Burton to Arcade Fire have been saying for years: living in the suburbs will make you unhappy – and maybe kill you.
According to the recent report from the County Health Rankings, in just one decade the suburbs went from the having the lowest rate of drug overdoses to the highest. In suburbia, overdoses are now the top cause of early deaths among adults under 44, a striking turnaround considering that just a decade or two ago, politicians were busy framing inner cities as hopeless sinkholes of crime.
The authors of this latest report attribute this rise in mortality to “deaths of despair” – the despair in question being caused by the absence of homeownership and job prospects. Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t hold up to even cursory examination. Homes are much less affordable in the city, and the unemployment rate is also much higher; there must be other factors at work.
Experts have been saying for years now that the suburbs make people miserable, but there are many competing theories as to why. One theory posits that the suburbs conflict with a natural human need for “organic order.” According to this line of thought, the winding streets, random cul de sacs, and non-mixed-use developments (i.e. houses over here; businesses over there) have a negative effect on the human psyche. In the city, you can run downstairs for milk, whereas in the suburbs you might have to drive ten minutes, and the natural borders and paths of urban sidewalks and streets naturally reassure you, while in the sidewalk-less, landmark-less suburbs, you’re left wandering on a treadmill of anomie. While this argument has its merits, it also has a fatal flaw – the last thing anyone would say about the suburbs is that it lacks order. If anything, it has an excess of order.
Another theory states that suburbs make you unhappy because they encourage social isolation. Man is a social animal, according to this theory, and suburbia puts up barriers – or, to be more literal, fences – that are meant to minimize social interaction. Houses are set back from the street, and since there are few sidewalks, everyone drives, which means no one ever interacts as pedestrians. While it’s true that, yes, the suburbs can be weirdly lonely, anyone who’s ever lived in New York City will tell you that there’s no shortage of social isolation in the densest of cities, either. There must be more to the picture.
What if the reason that suburbs make you miserable is much simpler and fundamental than economics or urban planning or social dynamics. What if the suburbs are lethally boring? Psychologists know that boredom is associated with overeating, depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol abuse (to circle back to the first theory discussed). And we know that sensory understimulation – the cause of boredom – is so bad for your mental health, that many countries now classify it as torture. It’s not so farfetched to assume that if solitary confinement – the most extreme form of understimulation – can cause psychotic breakdowns, then a milder, chronic form of understimulation – living in the suburbs – could have negative effects too.
The boredom theory, when you think about it, is something of a unified version of all the above theories. People don’t take drugs, after all, because they can’t afford a house. Drugs are just an ingestible form of stimulation, a way to trigger sensory reactions in the brain without actually experiencing stimuli – maybe because you don’t want to, or maybe because there’s simply nothing to experience in your boring suburban neighborhood. The urban planning theory fits under this umbrella too – is it a natural urge for order that’s being frustrated by rows and rows of quiet, identical houses and streets, or a more fundamental need for stimulation? And if man is a social animal, maybe that’s just because another human being is the most accessible and satisfying source of stimulation on earth.
Could it be that simple? Is living in the suburbs a mild, but still toxic, form of solitary confinement? It strikes me as plausible, at the very least. Growing up in a small midwestern suburb, I was plagued by constant irresistible urges to blast music, get drunk, and eat any pills I could get my hands on. When I moved to New York and then DC, those urges subsided (although they came back with a vengeance whenever I had an office job – more evidence in favor of the understimulation theory). So what could suburbs do to solve their understimulation problem? Who knows, it might be as easy as a paint job.