Happy neighbourhood, happy thoughts

Finally, after almost two years of full or partial lockdowns, it is safe to say The Netherlands is free from measures against the coronavirus. This is a moment many people had been eagerly anticipating. The pandemic is finally over [1]. A reason to cheer one would think. However, in the same week, the news broke that Russia had started its invasion of Ukraine and, devastating images of burning buildings, as well as fleeing people, were all over the media. Later that week, a new report on the state of climate change was published indicating that global warming is going faster than expected and that the immediate effects of climate change will be felt more severely and sooner than predicted [2]. Observing the current state of affairs can be quite depressing. People fighting over land on a dying planet still plagued by a pandemic is not a happy sight and no reason for optimism. Being in a constant state of pessimism is no way to live though. Therefore, we will look at how the immediate surroundings of people (i.e. neighbourhoods) can help generate more positivity and optimism in individuals.

Interaction as an ingredient for optimism

Before looking at the ways a neighbourhood can positively influence a person’s optimism a definition of the word optimism is required. Optimism is described as being hopeful for the future, and being able to see the positive things in situations [3]. As one would expect, happiness and optimism are closely linked. Happy people tend to be more optimistic and people who view the world with a higher degree of optimism, to a certain extent, tend to be happier [4].

Following this premise, the neighbourhood can positively influence happiness by promoting interactions and reducing isolation, especially in vulnerable neighbourhoods [5]. When people have more and better relationships in their surroundings it gives them a network to rely on when things might get tough. Having such a social safety net helps people overcome personal, medical or financial issues more easily which helps with viewing the world through a more positive outlook [6][7]. Neighbourhoods can also have an indirect effect on optimism through their effects on health. Good physical health has been linked to increased rates of optimism. People who are in better physical shape tend to have more opportunities concerning work, entertainment and partaking in social activities thus increasing their sense of well-being and optimism [8]. A neighbourhood lacking access to healthy food, sports facilities or even a proper sidewalk can incentivise people to make worse choices regarding diet and physical activity [9]. The opposite can also be true. Neighbourhoods with stronger social networks tend to improve health by sharing knowledge and promoting healthier lifestyles among members of a community [10]. It must be noted though, that these positive health effects mostly occur in wealthier neighbourhoods and communities.

“[…] a social safety net helps people overcome personal, medical or financial issues more easily which helps with viewing the world through a more positive outlook”

Upbringing contributes to optimism

Previous examples mostly related to indirect effects of the neighbourhood on optimism. There are also direct links between one’s neighbourhood and optimism. These effects are most effective when looking at people’s upbringing and formative years [11]. An important thing to consider regarding optimism, pessimism and happiness is that a large part of them is also genetically predisposed [11]. Some people simply tend to view the world in a more positive light, while others lean more towards the negative. In my family, for example, there is a history of minor depression even though we live financially comfortable lives and are in relatively good physical health. 

The foundation for a tendency for optimism is often laid by one’s parents and education. A child who experiences positive interactions with their family is oftentimes more optimistic later in life [12]. However, this could still be an effect of the genetic predisposition for optimism [11].

Schools have more of a definable positive impact on optimism. Building good relationships at school both with teachers and other students aids the ability of children to create a more positive worldview and outlook on the future [11]. 

Setting a good example

Schools can make an especially positive impact on children from lower-income neighbourhoods who might experience or witness more challenging events. The presence and the view of violence, addiction, crime and poverty in the neighbourhood is especially impactful on younger children [11]. Being surrounded by malaise and hardship logically make it harder to have a hopeful outlook on your future. Schools can play a role here though. Especially in lower-income neighbourhoods with higher rates of ethnic and cultural diversity education can be a way to show children that despite the difficulties that their neighbourhood poses they, too, can succeed [14]. This effect is strongest when a school with students from wide ethnic backgrounds employ more teachers from ethnic minorities [14]. This helps children by having a role model of their background they can look up to and relate to more than a teacher from a different ethnic background [14]. The way teachers are role models and positively influence children’s optimism can also be extended to other role models. Someone from a neighbourhood who succeeds as a professional football player for example can also be a role model to children and pose as a source of inspiration and optimism [13].

“[…] happy, inclusive neighbourhoods can lead to happier and  more optimistic lives for its members.”

Neighbourhoods in times of hardship

Coming back to the topics of the introduction, it is important to discuss the role the neighbourhood can play in times of hardship and difficulties. As established earlier, neighbourhoods can help resolve issues of individual members through their social capital [6][7]. However, neighbourhoods can strengthen the bond between their members and their individual happiness by helping others outside the neighbourhood community as well. Contributing to charity by donations or doing volunteer work helps people establish better relationships with their neighbourhoods while simultaneously improving their personal happiness and sense of satisfaction [15]. Examples have been plentiful over the last two years. Especially during the pandemic, have seen a rise in civic initiatives in my surroundings. People offered to take elderly persons out for walks or set up services that would call people prone to social isolation in times of lockdowns. More recently, as news about refugees from Ukraine and the severity of their situation became known, centres that collect all kinds of supplies that may help them have been set up. People are donating clothes, food and other supplies as a display of solidarity and a desire to help. Tilburg University has set up such a collection centre as well. This is an example of how neighbourhoods and communities can quickly cooperate in times of hardship or crisis, which is shown to be a contributor to optimism as well. The sense of being able to contribute to problems can help people increase their sense of satisfaction and optimism through collective action [15][16].

Happy neighbourhood, happy thoughts?

The neighbourhood has many effects on its inhabitants. A well connected and organised neighbourhood can have positive effects on a variety of emotions and feelings. Especially during a child’s formative years, the neighbourhood can foster a sense of optimism through role models in school and media, and through positive relationships with family members. Later in life, neighbourhoods can help people adopt healthy lifestyles and solve all kinds of problems, positively contributing to happiness levels and optimism. Collective action in times of hardship strengthens community bonds and feelings of optimism as well. It can thus be concluded that happy, inclusive neighbourhoods can lead to happier and more optimistic lives for its members.


[1] NOS. (2022, February 15). Kabinet laat ‘met veel vertrouwen’ coronamaatregelen los. Retrieved 2-3-2022

[2] NOS. (2022, February 28). IPCC: gevolgen klimaatverandering steeds erger; ‘nu razendsnel aan de slag’. Retrieved 2-3-2022

[3] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/optimism, retrieved 2-3-2022 

[4] de Meza, D., & Dawson, C. (2021). Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(4), 540–550. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220934577

[5] Somarriba Arechavala, N., Zarzosa Espina, P. & López Pastor, A.T. (2021). The Importance of the Neighbourhood Environment and Social Capital for Happiness in a Vulnerable District: The Case of the Pajarillos District in Spain. J Happiness Stud. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-021-00479-x

[6] Bitler, M., Hoynes, H., & Kuku, E. (2017). Child poverty, the great recession, and the social safety net in the United States. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management : [the Journal of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management], 36(2), 358–89.

[7] Bernard, P., Charafeddine, R., Frohlich, K. L., Daniel, M., Kestens, Y., & Potvin, L. (2007). Health inequalities and place: a theoretical conception of neighbourhood. Social Science & Medicine, 65(9), 1839–1852. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.05.037

[8] Trudel-Fitzgerald, C., James, P., Kim, E. S., Zevon, E. S., Grodstein, F., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2019). Prospective associations of happiness and optimism with lifestyle over up to two decades. Preventive Medicine, 126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.105754

[9] Mirowsky, J., & Ross, C. (2015). Education, Health, and the Default American Lifestyle. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. doi:10.1177/0022146515594814

10. Ross, C. E., & Mirowsky, J. (2008). Neighborhood socioeconomic status and health: context or composition? City & Community, 7(2), 163–179.

[11] Fletcher, J. (2019, October 14). Assessing the Importance of Childhood Context in the Development of Hope and Optimism. SpringerLink. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007

[12] Thomson, K. C., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Oberle, E. (2015). Optimism in early adolescence: relations to individual characteristics and ecological assets in families, schools, and neighborhoods. Journal of Happiness Studies : An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 16(4), 889–913. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-014-9539-y

[13] Higgins, M., Dobrow, S. R., & Roloff, K. S. (2010). Optimism and the boundaryless career: The role of developmental relationships. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31(5), 749-769.

[14] Goldsmith Pat António. (2004). Schools’ racial mix, students’ optimism, and the black-white and latino-white achievement gaps. Sociology of Education, 77(2), 121–147.

[15] Mellor, D., Hayashi, Y., Stokes, M., Firth, L., Lake, L., Staples, M., Chambers, S., & Cummins, R. (2009). Volunteering and its relationship with personal and neighborhood well-being. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 38(1), 144–159.

[16] Greenberg, M., & Schneider, D. (1997). Neighborhood quality, environmental hazards, personality traits, and resident actions. Risk Analysis, 17(2), 169–175. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.1997.tb00856.x 

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