City or Country Living? Research Reveals Psychological Differences – Neuroscience News

Summary: Country living may not be as good for your mental health as previously believed, researchers say. A new study reveals those who live in rural areas may be more anxious and depressed than their city-dwelling peers.

Source: University of Houston

Living in the country, in rural areas, has long been idealized as a pristine place to raise a family. After all, open air and room to run free pose distinct advantages.

But new findings from a University of Houston psychology study indicate that Americans who live in more rural areas tend to be more anxious and depressed, as well as less open-minded and more neurotic.

The study also revealed those living in the country were not more satisfied with their lives nor did they have more purpose, or meaning in life, than people who lived in urban areas.  

The research points to disparities in access to psychological services as one potential reason for these psychological differences. 

Since 2010, there has been a surge in rural hospital closures that has also contributed to a reduction in the health care provider workforce, including mental health professionals. Almost 85% of all rural counties have a mental health professional shortage despite rural residents desiring more psychological services.  

This shows a cityscape The research points to disparities in access to psychological services as one potential reason for these psychological differences. Image is in the public domain

“It will be critical to improve access to psychological services in remote areas and to identify how characteristics and values of rural communities can be leveraged to promote positive psychological health,” reports Olivia Atherton, assistant professor of psychology, in the Journal of Personality.  

To conduct her research, Atherton analyzed data from two large longitudinal studies of U.S. Americans: Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). She examined whether there are rural-urban differences in levels and changes in the Big Five personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism) and well-being (psychological well-being, life satisfaction) across adulthood.   

The study fills important gaps in the literature by showing that where people live can impact personality and well-being in adulthood, while simultaneously raising more questions for future work to explore.   

“Given the far-reaching consequences of rural health disparities for individuals, families and communities, there is a pressing need to identify the psychological, social and structural mechanisms responsible for disparities and the ways in which to intervene upon those mechanisms to improve the health of rural Americans,” said Atherton. 


Rural–urban differences in personality traits and well-being in adulthood


One large focus of personality psychology is to understand the biopsychosocial factors responsible for adult personality development and well-being change. However, little is known about how macro-level contextual factors, such as rurality–urbanicity, are related to personality development and well-being change.


The present study uses data from two large longitudinal studies of U.S. Americans (MIDUS, HRS) to examine whether there are rural–urban differences in levels and changes in the Big Five personality traits and well-being (i.e., psychological well-being, and life satisfaction) in adulthood.


Multilevel models showed that Americans who lived in more rural areas tended to have lower levels of openness, conscientiousness, and psychological well-being, and higher levels of neuroticism. With the exception of psychological well-being (which replicated across MIDUS and HRS), rural–urban differences in personality traits were only evident in the HRS sample. The effect of neuroticism was fully robust to the inclusion of socio-demographic and social network covariates, but other effects were partially robust (i.e., conscientiousness and openness) or were not robust at all (i.e., psychological well-being). In both samples, there were no rural–urban differences in Big Five or well-being change.


We discuss the implications of these findings for personality and rural health research.


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