One of my co-workers recently visited NYC for the first time. A born and raised Midwesterner, she remarked that while she enjoyed visiting The Big Apple, she much preferred the slower, more comfortable (and affordable) Midwest pace. The comment struck a chord with me because I happened to have just read a particular passage from author Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine regarding metropolitan life and its effects on the individual.
Imagine is an excellent read about how creativity works, more particularly, what works and what doesn’t (and why) as far as making people creatively productive and efficient. (Expect a full review soon.) This creativity doesn’t refer only to artistic types but to every single person and it can be expressed in painting or writing or creating music or it can lead to innovative ideas, scientific discoveries or useful inventions. Sometimes it means old ideas applied in new ways, giving rise to new and exciting uses for things we already have. And according to Lehrer, people who live in densely packed cities tend to have more creatively productive lives than those who live in more sparsely populated communities.
Put simply, urban life produces more creative people. Cities, as it turns out, are more than just masses of buildings with high rents and tiny spaces. They are typically populated by people from all walks of life who are forced, because of the lack of open space, to interact with each other pretty much daily. They are a kind of dance during which any given person will interact with a number of new people everyday. Apartments and shops and restaurants fill every block which means that different kinds of people are out on the street for different reasons at various times throughout the day. The end result is that each resident is exposed to a much wider range of people in their day-to-day lives. This kind of diversity leads to the expansion of each city-dweller’s base of knowledge which promotes new ideas (or old ideas being applied in new ways).
This concept has been studied by physicists and mathematicians who have uncovered a pattern so uniform, they’ve even applied an equation to it. And it hasn’t failed once. They’ve measured every socioeconomic variable from per capita income to the productions of patents and each variable scales to an exponent of 1.15. The exponent is greater than 1, which means that a person living in a city of 1 million should make 15% more money and come up with 15% more patents than someone living in a city of 500,000. The correlations between the size of the city in which one lives to that individual’s own creative output is linear. The bigger the city, the more productive its residents. And because each person is more creatively productive and more and different people are forced to interact with one another almost daily, the city itself becomes an inexhaustible source of ideas. People challenge and inspire each other and the greater the diversity of the people, the greater the diversity of their ideas and innovations.
Sometimes these forced interactions are unpleasant or uncomfortable. Anyone who’s been to NYC can tell you that New Yorkers aren’t known for being balls of inspired sunshine. But even the unpleasant exchanges produce higher rates of productivity because they break up our thought processes. It’s the same reason behind the notion that if you get stuck on a concept or find yourself in the midst of some kind of mental block, you should get up and go for a walk or do 20 push-ups or just step outside for some fresh air. The concept being that you need to disrupt your train of thought. People who live in densely packed cities are constantly disrupted by collisions, pleasant or otherwise, with others. It’s unavoidable. And it leads to the disruption of our thoughts which very often leads to new, more creative ones.
Life in the big city certainly comes at a cost, though, and some, like my above-mentioned co-worker, don’t find it worth it. The cost of everything from your monthly rent to the price of a gallon of milk is significantly higher. There are more crowds everywhere you go, limited space in restaurants and venues, higher crime rates, more competition for jobs and schools, etc. And the big city lifestyle simply doesn’t appeal to a great many people. And yet many people do move to bigger cities everyday and likely for the reasons explained above. They want to meet new people, make more money and generally create more and new opportunities for themselves. According to the proven equations outlined in Lehrer’s Imagine, those people will generate more creative output over the course of their lives.
So my question for you, dear reader, is this: which is more important to you, a more creatively productive life or a more comfortable lifestyle?