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Can big cities protect us from depression? Researchers think so

They have a hard-earned reputation for being toilsome, transient places, but research suggests that big cities can protect us from depression

They have a hard-earned reputation for being toilsome, transient places, but research suggests that big cities can protect us from depression

The commuter who holds your gaze on the train. The smiling barista at your neighbourhood coffee shop. The busker who nods gratefully as you toss some silver into their guitar case. 

Transient interactions like these are commonplace in big cities, occurring so frequently that they’re often forgotten after a long day. But according to new research, fleeting connections like these make urbanites less prone to depression than their small-town counterparts. 

The research — published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — was conducted by academics at the University of Chicago. They wanted to find out whether the social networks that help drive innovation and wealth creation in big cities also positively impact people’s psychology. 

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They analysed data sets for depression rates in urban areas across the US. Their findings? That the social interactions that come with big city living — even relatively superficial ones — help buffet people from depression.

The study focussed exclusively on depression, not other mental health conditions that could be worsened by living in a big city, such as the anxiety many feel about being priced out of urban areas. 

However, despite the study’s shortcomings, its authors say that it provides a foundation for future research to pinpoint the characteristics of urban environments that boost wellbeing. 

Researchers analysed depression rates, and found they were lower in big cities. Image: Christopher Czermak

“What will be super interesting is if we can continue to identify the properties of larger cities that promote psychological benefits, while trying to eliminate some of the negatives of large urban living such as crime, poverty and inequality,” said Marc Berman, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “Doing so might help us to have a more sustainable future, including better mental health.”

Berman and his colleagues believe that the research, even in its current form, presents an opportunity for policymakers. They make a case for diverting more resources to smaller cities for treating depression. They also suggest that leaders in sparsely populated regions could boost wellbeing by creating more opportunities in the built environment for connections.  

For a lesson in boosting wellbeing, policymakers could also, perhaps, look to Reykjavik. The Icelandic capital recently topped a table of the world’s best cities for mental wellbeing.

Reykjavik was recently ranked the world's best city for mental wellbeing. Image: Tom Podmore

Those behind the research used various metrics to inform their findings, including: crime levels, gender and minority equality, population density, air pollution, noise pollution, traffic congestion, unemployment rates, local purchasing power, social security structures, and the government’s response to the pandemic.

Bern in Switzerland and Helsinki, the Finnish capital, came second and third respectively. Liverpool was the only UK city to feature in the top 20 (no. 11); London ranked a lowly 69.

Main image: Bangkok by night. Credit: Dan Freeman

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