Are Your Unfriendly Neighbors Making You Sick?

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When it comes to human happiness, it's all about location, location, location. People from neighborhoods with low incomes and poor education tend to be less happy than those from wealthier neighborhoods, a finding that will probably surprise no one. But according to a new study, the richest neighborhoods are still hell if neighbors aren't friendly.

Scientists looked at the medical records for 11,000 people over the age of 50 and compared them to people's own personal opinions about their neighborhoods: chiefly, how much they liked them. They found that a third of people who were dissatisfied by their neighborhoods had health problems. By contrast, less than a quarter of people who liked their neighborhoods had medical issues.

“While we know that older adults who reside in more objectively deprived neighborhoods are more likely to have worse health, the findings show that how they perceive the area they live in has a strong association independent of neighborhood deprivation and individual circumstances,” explained Stephen Jivraj, a University College London researcher who helped run the study.

What is this elusive "neighborhood satisfaction" the scientists were talking about? Apparently, it's based on having neighbors who are friendly, kind and trustworthy, and participants' own sense of belonging. Cleanliness and safety were also factors.

Money still matters, of course. The researchers found two-fifths of the adults they looked at in deprived communities had medical problems. But this study shows that even money isn't enough to stave away health problems. You need community too.

Americans live in a world where growing the economy and making money is seen as the key to happiness.

"A rising tide lifts all ships," a friend told me as he explained that poverty is fine because the economy gives poor people more stuff every year (a debatable point, but I'll leave it for now). But affluence is nowhere near as important as community. An 80-year-long Harvard study on happiness found that personal connections are the single most important predictor of happiness.

But it's not just that a growing economy won't bring happiness. It might actually decrease happiness. The hypercompetitive, winner-takes-all style economy we have gets in the way of community. Instead of working together, people spend all day competing, leading to stress, loneliness and, of course, environmental problems.

After all, look at the very design of most American neighborhoods. Houses are packed into lines and separated by streets. There are very few common spaces where neighbors might actually run into each other and strike up conversations. Most American neighborhoods are designed for keeping people in economically-efficient, individual boxes. They're made for cars, not communities.

A happier world might include very different urban design ... And way more neighborhood potlucks.