New & Now

Trust Me: Might fewer fences make for happier, healthier neighbors?

SOCIAL SCIENTISTS have long suspected that living at least as well as your neighbor is one key to contentment. The reason why involves more than simply the satisfaction of keeping up with the Joneses: An individual’s sense of financial well-being, relative to his neighbors, helps determine whether he considers himself a valued, trusted part of a successful community. Those who feel valued and trusted, in turn, are thought to make for healthier, happier citizens.

Individuals, on the other hand, who struggle to make ends meet — folks whose lack of sufficient income puts them in a “low relative position” to their more prosperous neighbors — are at greater risk for feelings of resentfulness and mistrust. Such feelings, in turn, boost individuals’ levels of stress, unhappiness, and related health problems.

This is the “relative position hypothesis,” says social science researcher Eileen Bjornstrom, an assistant professor of sociology at MU. “Because human beings engage in interpersonal comparisons in order to gauge individual characteristics, it has been suggested that a low relative position, or feeling that you are below another person financially, leads to stress and negative emotions such as shame, hostility and distrust, and that health suffers as a consequence.”

So far so good, theoretically speaking. But what happens if you take the examination of community “trust” a step further and focus attention on real-world settings: places like the neighborhoods where people might actually find themselves experiencing relative position’s purported health effects?

To find out, Bjornstrom scrutinized data from the 2001 Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey, a detailed snapshot of 422 U.S. Census blocks in 65 census tracts in Los Angeles County conducted by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rand Corporation.

As Bjornstrom expected, the survey indicated that people who said “their neighbors can be trusted” also reported better health. Contrary to expectations, however, the survey data also indicated that respondents with incomes that were higher relative to the rest of the community were more likely to distrust their neighbors.

“I was surprised about the direction in which relative position was linked to distrust,” Bjornstrom says. “If affluent individuals are less likely to trust their poorer neighbors, it could be beneficial to attempt to overcome some of the distrust that leads to poor health.”

The take-away? “It is possible that shared community resources that promote interaction, such as sidewalks and parks, could help bridge the neighborhood trust gap and also promote health and well-being. Residents of all economic statuses might then benefit if community cohesion were increased. Additional research can address those questions.”

Bjornstrom’s findings were published in the July 2011 edition of the journal Social Science and Medicine.

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Illustration by Blake Dinsdale.

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