What’s making New Yorkers unhappy? The top 4 culprits

“Don’t get me wrong, man. I love New York. It’s so much fun. But I just had to get out. It was just too intense.”
“Too fast-paced.”
“Sensory overload.”
“Too much going on all the time.”
“Just too much.”

“Too much” seems to be a recurring theme amongst the New York City refugees I’ve spoken to in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And I agree: every time I spend some time in NYC, I end up a little exhausted. But precisely what about it is too much? What are the specific stressors that make it more difficult to be happy in a place like NYC?

On this visit to the city, I put on my Happiness Engineer hat — similar to my usual hat, with a more skeptical tilt — and observed what was going on that could potentially contribute to the malaise. Amongst all the ways that New York City could make you unhappy, these four reasons stand out the most:

1. Loud noises

Almost everywhere I went in NYC, the ambient noise level was above 80dB. For comparison, that’s the loudness of an average alarm clock — y’know, the incredibly annoying sound that’s loud enough to jolt you out of deep slumber. Now imagine alarm-clock level noise following you around wherever you go.

But 80dB was just the average noise level outside. On a bus, average noise was around 85dB (3x louder than 80db), and on the subway, it routinely spiked to 100+ dB (100x louder than 80dB). In a crowded café in Koreatown, I recorded an ambient noise level of 90dB.

Loud noise is a primal stressor. If you think about what it must have been like for our ancestors living on the savanna 300,000 years ago, there probably weren’t a lot of loud noises. When you did hear a loud noise, though, it was probably important: the roar of a predator, the cracking of a branch about to fall on your head, a burst of thunder. Responding to that loud noise had survival value. Almost every loud noise was salient.

This is probably why we still respond to loud noises so vigorously. Our muscles tighten, our heart and breathing rates elevate, and we get a jolt of cortisol and adrenaline in our bloodstream: ready for action! Some of us even startle and literally jump in respond to noise that is loud enough.

Unfortunately, in a big city like New York, there are a lot of non-salient loud noises. Buses, trains and café conversations aren’t necessarily going to kill you (unless you get in the path of the wrong one). But our bodies still respond to loudness as if it’s threatening.

There are certain adaptations that our bodies make to manage loud noises. Two of the smallest muscles of your body, the tensor timpani and the stapedius, have the sole purpose of dampening loud noise (especially while chewing). However, these muscles fatigue after a few minutes. Also, keeping them constantly contracted is by definition a state of tension.

The problem with loud noises is this: it’s impossible to get used to them. We have mechanisms to adapt somewhat to high ambient noise levels. But there’s no defense against the piercing wail of an ambulance siren, the earth-shaking rumble of an approaching train, or the high-pitched screech of its brakes. Your body will give you a squirt of cortisol and adrenaline, which will make you a little more stressed. Do that a few dozen times a day, every day for years on end, and it adds up.

Suggested remedy: The best thing you can do to mitigate the effects of loud noises is to always carry and wear earplugs in loud urban settings. I’ve been carrying earplugs with me for years, and they are a game-changer. I buy them by the 100-pack in flesh tone that blends in with your skin when you wear them.

Exposure to high ambient noise levels also causes progressive deafness, which is another good reason to get over being too cool to wear earplugs, especially at clubs and concerts. But that’s a story for another day.

2. Commuting

Many studies show that for every minute of additional commuting, there’s a corresponding decrease in overall life satisfaction. And a famous study discovered that commuting is the daily activity that makes people the least happy. (In case you were wondering, #1 on the list was sex. This is why we need science.)

Millions of people in NYC commute daily to work. And as real-estate prices climb higher, the duration of commutes get longer. I know people who work in Manhattan but live over an hour away from their work. One of them is an artist who needs space for her studio, so she lives in deep Brooklyn where it’s more affordable. Another is a successful entrepreneur mom who likes to live in her posh Greenwich home where her kids have more room and access to better schools.

Whether by choice or necessity, a two-hour daily commute just eats into your overall happiness, and there’s almost no amount of money or niceness of house that makes up for it (although some Swiss researchers say a 40% salary increase is a good start). Especially when it’s in a city as densely populated as New York (see next item on list).

Suggested remedies:

  • Deliberately choose to live closer to work.
  • Biking and walking are better than driving. Some researchers say being able to walk to work adds about as much happiness to your life as being in love.
  • Add enjoyment or productivity to the commute. Listen to an audiobook, practice your singing, or catch up with friends on the phone. Make it your me-time.

3. Overcrowding

When scientists want to experimentally induce stress in lab animals, they put too many of them in one cage. The 59-square km island of Manhattan (22.8 sq mi) houses 3.1 million people in the daytime, 1.6 million at night. That’s a population density of 52,542 people per square kilometer in the daytime, 27,118/sq km at night — one big, overcrowded cage.

In case you’re wondering if that number’s small or large, visit the New York subway system during rush hour, or cross a street, or walk into a coffee shop in the early afternoon. There are lines, crowds and jams everywhere. I visited this new development called Hudson Yard over the weekend, where they have built a very shiny staircase to nowhere (called “The Vessel”). At 4pm, it was full of people and already sold out for the day. Moral of the story: given enough people, even a staircase to nowhere sells out.

When you have that many people around all the time, everything becomes a competition: getting a seat on the subway; scoring a reservation at a restaurant; getting a parking spot; getting a seat at a park concert. Last night I was sitting at a park table at Bryant Park to watch a free staged performance of Bizet’s Carmen by the New York City Opera. My friend who I was going to meet called me, so I stood up and took three steps away from the table to find him. I looked back, and within those 5 seconds, someone had taken my seat.

Suggested remedy: Move somewhere less crowded — like, anywhere.

It seems highly anxiety-provoking to constantly worry about getting a spot or losing one. But that’s mostly episodic. There is another form of NYC anxiety which never turns off, and that is…

4. Status anxiety

Am I rich enough? Am I good-looking enough? Is my job cool enough? Am I scoring reservations at that hot new restaurant, and if so, is my table any good? Am I hanging out at the Hamptons enough this summer, at a cool enough house with cool enough people? Was my bonus large enough, especially compared to my colleagues? Is my address prestigious enough? Am I winning yet? Am I enough?

Issues like these exist in most major metropolitan areas, but I feel as if status anxiety is particularly pronounced in a place like New York City. (Incidentally, the other cities that have maxed out my status-anxiometer were London and Hong Kong.) I recommend the always eloquent and insightful Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety if you’d like to explore the topic further.

Status anxiety is a holdover from our evolutionary past, where we lived in small hierarchical tribes. Our very survival depended on our rank in the tribe, because low rank meant you wouldn’t get access to food or reproductive resources. We still have the genes of those rank-sensitive primates, so even in a big city with enough food and partners to go around for everyone, people still worry about status totally out of proportion of its effect on their survival.

Potential remedies: This is one of those deeply ingrained evolutionary behaviors that’s just very difficult to snap out of once you’re embedded in a hyper-competitive milieu like New York City. So the simple (if not necessarily easy) remedy is to move somewhere more chill.

Barring that, it helps a lot to meditate. Over the long term, meditation reconfigures your brain such that you can take a step back and look at your thoughts and see that they’re just thoughts, not you. Kind of like whatever show is playing on the TV screen is just the show, but not the TV. You are the TV. And so, you’ll become able to see the survival-based status anxiety thoughts as just thoughts, which you are free to smile at and ignore, and nothing more. Pretty liberating, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading! If you found this useful, please spread the word and share it with friends via social media and email. And if you’re a New Yorker itching to prove me wrong by getting angry at me, you can write me at drali (at) happinessengineering.com.