The Missing Connection: How the Morning Commute Affects Mental Wellness

Social codes in cities mean that although we may be constantly surrounded by other people, we seldom make genuine contact. Can understanding this process help to improve mental health in the urban environment?

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vis Flickr user mikeleeorg

vis Flickr user mikeleeorg

I find the morning bus depressing. Don’t get me wrong, as an artist it’s great for people watching, but there’s a greater detail of the environment that is more poignant than any strange or interesting character – silence. I find it ironic that buses pack everyone together like sardines, yet commuters resolve to escape any greater contact: avoiding eye contact or speaking to other passengers at all costs. When someone does speak to another person they frequently receive a quick response in the form of a curt nod or a few polite words, making it clear that conversation will not be continued. Should someone break the silence barrier to comment on the weather, the person they address will most likely treat them suspiciously – wondering if their lack of norm following is indicative of mental illness or malicious intentions.

When two strangers manage to have a good conversation, it’s treated as an anomaly or a special occasion. When I’ve run into friends who’ve had one of these encounters, their reaction is usually ecstatic: “I spoke to an interesting stranger today!” Although moments like this can brighten your day, it’s sad that they are so rare. Which raises the question: why is it so difficult to connect to people?

Maybe it has to do with how we are brought up to think in cities. As children we are told not to talk to strangers and to avoid “weirdos” lest we be harmed or kidnapped. This unfortunately is a very real precaution that must be impressed upon children. Although we may face similar dangers as adults, especially in the city, I think the awkward silences while we’re packed into buses, elevators, stores, planes, trains, and other spaces, have fostered an environment that has a negative effect on our mental health.

via Flickr user Susan NYC

via Flickr user Susan NYC

Fear of other people and the ambivalence regarding proximity and contact confuses us about whether such distance is or isn’t, the social norm. As humans we develop our self-understanding through our interactions with other people; the affects of our behaviour and appearance are reflected back to us through the visual and verbal responses of others. It is the mirror of our lives.

On a coffee date with my father during the summer we were discussing lack of community and depression within cities. My dad expressed the feeling that Facebook and other social networks trap people within themselves, forcing them into a cycle of constant self-reflection that stunts their social growth. I only partially agreed with him because I am a big believer in the global internet community and its facilitation by social networks. However, on a different point, I explained that I thought silence on buses and the awkwardness of everyone’s sudden proximity caused people to develop conscious and subconscious feelings of alienation and insecurity.

To the insecure individual who is perhaps also coping with depression, the bus commute that is devoid of social interaction might reinforce their feelings of inadequacy and difference. It’s that same old concept of someone who feels they are on the outside looking into a place where everyone else is fine and content. Such an individual is not receiving sufficient feedback on their outward appearance, so they replace the missing data with their own imagined conclusions; unfortunately negative conclusions are often the easiest to form.

In another vein of interpretation, the bus reminds me of Marc-Augé’s “non-places”: airports, stations, subways and modes of transportation (i.e. somewhere you go to get somewhere else but not a place you desire to go to). The space in between does not exists on the social radar, as a commuter separates their categories of space (work, school, home) into units where they live and interact. At home you interact with your friends and family fulfilling a role such as son or daughter, parent, friend, or spouse. At work you are a co-worker or employee. This enables people to distance themselves from the world by concentrating on the spaces in which they choose to act and live; interaction with others is not expected while alone in non-places.

via Flickr user Gary Balding

via Flickr user Gary Balding

What bothers me is that these categories of interaction (home and work) are relatively small and place the rest of the world that is unfamiliar as “other”. They also limit the possibility for identity formation to these categories (mom, dad, lawyer, student, friend). It’s depressing that these categories appear to comprise our identity as our daily lives run along the same repetitive tracks, shuttled from interactive space A (home) to interactive space B (work).

While the sort of silence and distance I’ve described may not be true for all people or all localities, I believe these are some of the factors contributing to the prevalence of depression in cities. Who really wants to live in a world where you’re ambivalent or fearful of people in public spaces who feel a similar way toward you?