It was only a few moments after I felt the East Village sidewalk move below me yesterday that I found myself meeting strangers.
Four residents rushed out of the building I was standing in front of with nervous expressions on their faces, asking if I too had felt the shake. The one who looked most afraid was from Seattle, I found out. As a West Coaster myself, I understood and shared her innate fear of earthquakes, and we bonded for a moment as we shared our collective anxiety.
In a strange way, it made me feel better.
But as I left the Village and headed west through Manhattan, office buildings all around me had begun to evacuate, and it occurred to me that my experience was not unique.
As street corners and sidewalks crowded with people, I caught snippets of conversations between strangers: expressing fear, scoffing at the overreaction of their own office mates, or recounting tales of past earthquakes they had survived. I even saw one woman offer a stranger her cell phone to check in on a relative in Virginia.
It was eerily beautiful, in a sad sort of way. Such a feeling of community and togetherness on the streets of a city as large as New York felt wonderful, comforting even. But why did it have to be spurred by fear?
Well, there’s a reason. And luckily, there might also be a solution that this lesson can help us find.
In the late 1960s the Bronx-raised psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to study the difference between public behavior in cities and small towns. What he found was that people in big cities like New York were less helpful and more detached than their small-town counterparts: they were more likely to refuse to do favors, and less likely to engage in courtesies like offering a woman a seat or saying “sorry” after a collision on the sidewalk. There was even less of a chance that they would intervene in a situation where another was in harm’s way.
In his now-famous 1970 paper “The Experience of Life in Cities,” he attributed this phenomenon to something he called “urban overload”—or the overabundance of stimulus in cities that eventually “deforms daily life on several levels, impinging on role performance, the evolution of social norms, cognitive functioning, and the use of facilities.”
In other words, he found that cities make us shut out others.
“What’s fascinating, though, is that disasters help us break that shell of aloofness and distance and behave like the small-towners we used to be,” says New York Lab Team member Charles Montgomery, who has spent the last several years researching the impact of urban design on human well-being.
“While nobody would wish for a natural disaster in cities, these shocks can sometimes shake us out of our habitual reserve,” says Charles.
He points to the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City as a powerful moment when the city’s residents realized their common citizenship. “They reached out and helped each other and formed new bonds, and they actually surprised themselves and proved to each other that they shared common humanity,” he says.
The same heartlifting behavior was reported during the power outage that struck the Eastern Seaboard in 2003, throwing about 30 million people into a blackout for over 12 hours.
Psychology tells us that shared experience of trauma or challenge boosts our sense of interpersonal trust and connection.
Why does this matter in the context of the city?
“Because social capital—the bonds between people—is the most important contributor to human well-being, and feelings of trust are a good measure of social capital,” Charles says.
“We know that when we engage in trusting and cooperative encounters our bodies release a hormone called oxytocin, which not only rewards us for our behavior by giving us what you might call a warm and fuzzy feeling, but pushes us to continue to pay the trust forward.”
In short, that song that we all sang as children, “the more we get together, the happier we’ll be”? It’s not a load of baloney.
Now, this post should not be misinterpreted. Of course no one would ever wish for tragedy to befall anyone in the name of social cohesion.
“But I think the point is that some nice, nonlethal shocks to our system can be good for us in cities. Let’s not hope for tsunamis and terrible disasters, but wouldn’t it be great if we could reach out to each other without being prodded by the stimulus of disaster?” says Charles.
In fact, the Lab will host an event that investigates just this. On September 30 neuroscientist Paul Zak, psychologist Emanuele Castano, and Kio Stark of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program will band together to transform the Lab into the ideal environment to bring out New Yorkers’ trusting impulses and prompt the flow of feel-good hormones through their systems—and throw a party there!
Then we’ll look at how those ideas could be transferred to the very streets of the cities we live in to help make the pursuit of happiness that much easier for every city dweller—no disaster required.