Uninteresting urban environments negatively impact mental health

Uninteresting urban environments negatively impact mental health

Imagine a workplace which is situated in a dull and an impersonal building, which in turn is surrounded by duller and boring buildings. Sounds depressing? A growing body of psychological research is providing evidence that unimaginatively built-up environments, commonly referred to as concrete jungles, indeed affect mental health. The argument put forward by researchers is that individuals thrive in interesting situations filled with activity and diversity. People working out of trendy spaces, or those whose workplace is located in an area with cafes, restaurants and retail stores are happier compared to people working out of monotonous, box-like buildings.    

Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, undertook a unique research project in 2012. Findings from this research have been detailed in his book “Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life.” Ellard took groups of people on planned walks at two locations in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to assess the impact of changes in urban landscapes. Participants had to respond to questions sent to their smartphones, and they also had to wear sensor-equipped bracelets to measure electrodermal activity. At the first location, a dull street with a monolithic Whole Foods store, participants were assessed as being disinterested and bored. At the second location, a few steps away, were restaurants and shops where people were actively engaged in eating and socializing. In this case, the sensors reported the participants in an excited state.

Slight periods of boredom increase stress levels

Monotonous environments are closely associated with stress. Research undertaken by psychologists Colleen Merrifield and James Danckert, which got published in the journal Nature on Jan.12, 2017, proves that even very short durations of boredom lead to an increase in stress levels. During their research, participants were fitted with electrodes to monitor their emotional condition in response to watching three videos – one sad, one interesting and one boring. Participants’ saliva samples were also analyzed to check for the occurrence of cortisol, a hormone produced during stressful situations. It was found that the boring video induced higher levels of cortisol and increase in heart rates, which didn’t happen when participants watched the other videos.

Persistently high cortisol levels have been linked to stress-induced diseases such as stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Viewed in isolation, a single instance of watching a boring video or walking down a dull, monotonous street block may not seem hazardous. However, when similar instances recur on a regular basis and are considered in aggregate, they can have an alarming impact on mental health.

Homogenous surroundings are strong predictors of ADHD

Non-stimulating environments can also trigger attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome (ADHD), a mental condition characterized by frequent fidgeting, impetuous behavior and inattention. In a series of studies undertaken by physicians, household environments were analyzed to assess their impact on children’s mental health. It was found that houses with uninspiring conditions such as absence of play area and dull wall panels were responsible for ADHD symptoms in children.

In the U.S., the number of adults diagnosed with and being treated for ADHD is increasing. For such people, interesting and diverse experiences in their routine lives are critical. Although biological forces are mainly responsible for attention deficit disorders, social factors due to boredom or working in non-stimulating situations can also be at play.

Visual variety in daily situations is helpful

It is not possible for everyone to move to the Vegas strip, nor is it possible for every person to work in a building on Times Square. The solution lies in striking a balance between daily excitement and information overkill. Says Professor Brendan Walker, a former aerospace engineer and author of the book “Taxonomy of Thrill and Thrilling Designs,” “Humans want a certain element of turmoil or confusion. Complexity is thrilling whether in an amusement park or architecture.” Buildings with generic, monotonous designs do not provide any thrill or excitement.

Some amount of boredom may be beneficial since it may lead to creativity. However, excessive boredom or monotony, if left unattended, can lead to serious mental health conditions. If you or someone you know is experiencing high stress levels, immediate professional help is advised. You can get in touch with the California Mental Health Helpline to find the best mental health centers in California. You may call our 24/7 helpline number at 855-559-3923 or chat online with our experts to get details about the best options for mental health treatment in California.