I’ve been working on this theory that suburbia has a glass ceiling of happiness. Psychologists have pretty well documented the aesthetic effect of your surroundings on your mental state. McDondalds is painted bright colors to make you move faster. Prisons are painted dull colors to make you apathetic. Suburbia is pretty drab. Driving around suburbia the impression you get is one of mediocrity and sameness. You don’t get the sense of wonder and awe you get at the top of a mountain or in a cathedral. It’s a little thing, but the fact remains, there’s a limit to the amount of joy you’re going to receive from the aesthetics of suburbia.
Similar is the fact that psychologists have noticed that prolonged time in sensory deprivation will yield a withdrawn and catatonic mental state. In suburbia, where we sit in our climate controlled houses, drive the same route over and over to our climate controlled offices where we sit in climate controlled cubicles we’re basically living in a sort of sensory deprivation chamber. This can only have a dulling effect on our minds.
In addition to lack of sensory stimulus you’re also not going to experience a wide variety of life situations. Unless you work really hard to break up your routine, every day of the week is likely to be indistinguishable from any other day of the week any year of your life. You can actually live on autopilot and never think and still get through your life. Spend enough time in suburbia, and you’re likely to start noticing that you don’t notice your drive to work anymore. You just get to work and realize, “I don’t remember driving here.” Suburbia zones you out that bad.
While it’s admirable that life in suburbia offers luxuries and comforts unheard of even to royalty in the Middle Ages, when life becomes so rote with so little variation you’re eventually left with no frame of reference to judge the highs and lows. You lose your orientation of happiness and experience happiness vertigo. As a result minor inconveniences in your life can seem like the end of the world and small pleasures can seem euphoric. But the latter statement is no justification for happiness vertigo because that lifestyle is chaotic, unreliable, and ultimately stressful.
Most importantly probably is the lack of opportunity for want fulfillment, which is essential for happiness. Suburbia kills your opportunity to fulfill your wants in two ways. First, the fact that your basic survival needs are fulfilled misleads you into thinking that you have everything you should want. You feel guilty if you ask for more, which dissuades you from asking more of life. Even if you do have ambition, suburbia is unlikely to fulfill it. You’ll have to drive a long way out of suburbia to get to the business district and sit through stressful traffic getting to any place you might express yourself or grow. Given that you’re a slave to your job and family you might not have that much time to do that anyway.
And if you can get to a venue where you can express yourself or grow you’re going to have to pay for it, and life in suburbia doesn’t leave much money for want fulfillment. Utilities, rent, mortgages, insurance, car payments, credit card bills, cable, internet, cell phones, etc. will bury you in debt. I didn’t say, “can bury you in debt.” I said, “will.” Suburbia is designed to drain your wealth, which limits your options, and cancels out the sense of security that is suburbia’s greatest advantage.
Everything about suburbia is designed (intentionally or incidentally) to normalize life into unbroken, numbing, lukewarm blandness. Sure, you’ll be insulated from the atrocities of the ghetto or third world countries, but it’ll be nearly impossible to experience self-actualization in suburbia as well.
What do we do about it? Get out of suburbia. There are little things you can do within suburbia to spice up life a bit, but ultimately you’re just fighting the tide.
If you are going to stay in suburbia (you might not have much of a choice) at least you can take solace in the fact that you’re not happier because there’s something inherently wrong with you. You’ve just hit the glass ceiling.
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