Living in a City Changes the Way You Think About Your Future

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

There are moments when urban life seems like it would be so much better without all the people — like when you’re standing nose-to-armpit on the subway, or dodging an endless stream of slow walkers on the sidewalk, or contemplating all the germs that all those strangers’ hands leave on every touchable surface. Who among us, in those moments, hasn’t fantasized about living in a city with all of the city stuff and none of the other humans, one where you always get a seat on your commute and never have to stand in another line?

Despite all the hassle, though, there’s an upside to living in crowded places: According to a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and highlighted by Mental Floss, it helps you to take a longer view of life, turning your focus from the immediate present toward the future.

For the first part of the study, the authors compared the existing population data for population-dense and more sparsely populated U.S. states, looking at factors like average age of marriage, the percentage of preschool-aged kids actually enrolled in preschool, and average amount saved for retirement — all of which, as Mental Floss noted, are “indicators of a future-oriented mindset.” And across the board, the researchers found, those indicators were higher in states that contained more people per square mile. (The same thing held when they compared denser and less-dense countries.)

For the second part, the authors tested the pattern on their own volunteers. Some of the participants were made to think about population density, either by listening to recordings of crowded streets or by reading articles about how population density is increasing in the U.S.; afterward, everyone filled out a questionnaire about their long-term future plans, answering questions about things like their desire to have kids and whether they would consider going back to school to increase their earning potential. As with the first part of the study, those who were exposed to reminders of crowded places were more future-oriented in their answers.

The reason, the authors hypothesized, may have to do with the sense of competition that city life can inspire: “In a dense city, people have to compete more for resources,” Mental Floss explained, “and investing in education and spending more time raising fewer kids can lead to being a more competitive member of society.” Besides, the more densely populated your home base is, the more likely you can scratch that itch for instant gratification in other ways, like delivery at weird hours of the night.

Living in a City Changes the Way You Think About Your Future