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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cities, in other words, are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them). And in their present American incarnations—safe, family-friendly, pulsing with life on the street—they’re working at their optimum peak. In Cacioppo’s data, today’s city dwellers consistently rate as less lonely than their country cousins. “There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, an increase in trust,” he says. “It all leads to less alienation.”
New York, like the Internet, is a place where people live alone but are not lonely.
No one disputes the value of a good marriage, of course. Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick, in fact tried to calculate that value, based on tens of thousands of happiness surveys collected here and in the U.K., and found that it’s worth $100,000—or roughly doubling your salary, because working Americans earn, on average, $46,996 per year. But you know what else was worth $100,000? A large circle of friends. And it turns out that Aristotle was right when he wrote in The Nicomachean Ethics that friends are the glue that binds cities together. In study after study, urban dwellers have a more substantial social network. In his 1982 classic about Californians, To Dwell Among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City, the Berkeley, California–based sociologist Claude Fischer found a 40 percent uptick in the size of friendship-based social networks moving from semi-rural areas into the urban core. Even the recent study that found we had fewer confidants found better news for city dwellers. “Based on what I’m seeing,” says Matthew Brashears, one of the authors of the survey, “networks in large communities may have gotten smaller, but people in large communities still appear to have bigger networks than people in small.”

“In our data,” adds Lisa Berkman, the Harvard epidemiologist who discovered the importance of social networks to heart patients, “friends substitute perfectly well for family.” This finding is important. It may be true that marriage prolongs life. But so, in Berkman’s view, does friendship—and considering how important friendship is to New Yorkers (home of Friends, after all), where so many of us live on our own, this finding is blissfully reassuring. In fact, Berkman has consistently found that living alone poses no health risk, whether she’s looking at 20,000 gas and electricity workers in France or a random sample of almost 7,000 men and women in Alameda, California, so long as her subjects have intimate ties of some kind as well as a variety of weaker ones. Those who are married but don’t have any civic ties or close friends or relatives, for instance, face greater health risks than those who live alone but have lots of friends and regularly volunteer at the local soup kitchen. “Any one connection doesn’t really protect you,” she says. “You need relationships that provide love and intimacy and you need relationships that help you feel like you’re participating in society in some way.”