Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Emotional Cityness
Among his tips on turning cities into “engines for joy,” Lab Team member Charles Montgomery stresses interacting with strangers. He says: “Being kind is not just good for other people. My favorite neuroeconomist, Paul Zak, has shown that acts of altruism can flood your system with a happy hormone known as oxytocin.” Montgomery asks us to “help little old ladies cross the street,” to “merge politely in traffic,” and to “open doors for people,” all for the sake of feeling and passing on “the buzz.”
Curious to learn more, I looked up Paul Zak. I’d never heard of neuroeconomics. Its premises are that happy people tend to engage with others, and that cooperative engagement is key for a society’s economic health. We buzz cognitively and existentially during moments of connection. Our bodies fill with oxytocin—“a pure, social chemical released within seconds of positive social stimulus,” as Zak says during this captivating Lab interview.
The molecule, at least 400 million years old, is found in all mammals. But once released it passes quickly to our kidneys. Zak notes that “oxytocin goes right from our brain into the toilet.” He recommends frequent social contact, whether smiling, talking, hugging, or giving gifts. These actions (as well as having sex, giving birth, breastfeeding) release the chemical, which in turn leads to a desire for greater contact.
Such discoveries have explanatory power. For one thing, they help me understand how cultures arise. They also help clarify why Spontaneous Society—an interactive walk I lead through different New York neighborhoods—is so fun and addictive.
Over the years I’ve developed a catalog of one-line utterances that are 99% effective in terms of replacing urban anonymity with affection. I’ve tested each line thousands of times over thousands of blocks across multiple cities. Samples include:
“That’s a good-looking dog.” (said to someone approaching with a dog)
“That’s a good-looking duo.” (said to someone approaching with two dogs)
“That’s a good-looking wolfpack.” (said to someone approaching with three or more dogs—surprisingly common in New York)
“That looks pretty cozy.” (said to someone pushing a baby carriage)
“It must be nice to have a little helper.” (said to someone with a kid pushing a carriage or helping in another way)
“That’s a good pace.” (said to someone jogging past)
“It’s a good day for a ride.” (said to someone biking past)
“It’s a good day for a skate.” (said to someone skating past)
“That’s a good parking-spot.” (said to someone exiting a car)
“It’s a nice day for a picnic.” (said to someone eating on a bench, blanket, or doorstep)
“It’s a nice day to have the feet out.” (said to someone resting their bare feet)
“I hope the pizza pie stays warm.” (said to someone holding a pizza box)
“They say carrying bags is good exercise.” (said to someone holding heavy bags)
“That looks like a handy cart.” (said to someone pushing a handcart)
“That’s a good spot for a text.” (said to someone typing a message)
“Safe travels.” (said to someone wheeling a suitcase)
These lines, among others, form Spontaneous Society’s core. Adults, kids, even non-human animals respond to them. Once I told a man with a white parakeet on his finger: “That’s a good-looking bird.” The bird smiled then smoothed its feathers. It said “Good evening.”
Though listed as 90-minute events, Spontaneous Society walks often last two or more hours. Participants want to keep the buzz going. They’ll each try out some of my lines before improvising their own. Everybody starts to sense the power lurking inside basic, affirmative utterances, not to mention the altruistic joy of intensifying pleasure within the flow of daily life.
We’re at a tough spot right now—environmentally, economically, you name it. Anger and fear are pervasive. One way to address these widespread problems is by addressing each other with kindness in the mundane world. This much is up to us. Spontaneous Society provides a communication primer: a lesson in affectionate discourse bridging races, ages, classes; a reminder that the present, barring violence, is to be celebrated before it vanishes into nothingness.
Here’s a Spontaneous Society audio piece. It comes from a solo walk through Brooklyn (all my walks, whether alone or in groups, aim for spontaneous communion). The piece opens with a siren, ends with a scream, and includes 22 encounters. On that September day I’d found myself mourning the disappearance of summer. So I took this melancholy to the sidewalks, where—within seconds—it turned into celebration among my fellow New Yorkers, most of whom I’ll never see again. But their voices and laughter remain.
* * *
And here are photos from a Spontaneous Society event. They appear courtesy of Elastic City, which presented Spontaneous Society in 2011. Each walk had five participants plus myself. Elastic City creates “ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit” through interactive projects.
“It’s a nice day for ping-pong.”
“That’s a good spot for a text.”
“It’s a good day for a skate.”
“That’s a nice spot to catch up on some reading.”
“That’s a good-looking dog.”
“Cool ice-cream truck.”
Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the second is the Need to Promote Emotional Cityness.