Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Hey young people - do carry on moaning

My apologies young people, and do feel free to carry on moaning. Photo / 123RF
My apologies young people, and do feel free to carry on moaning. Photo / 123RF

Some evenings when we are peevish and cranky, which is quite often, I grab towels and tell the kids we are going night swimming. They don't want to get off their computers, but predictably, in a few minutes, once they are in the pool at the teps (Auckland Tepid Baths) they don't want to get out. Afterwards, all wafty in a post-swim oxytocin haze we get an icecream from Joy, the best icecream in the world. (* According to Tony's friend Guy.)

This counts as a good outing for us.

Other times, we scooter up the road to the library, where we say hi to librarians Tegan and Laura and they have a stack of new books waiting for us.

We don't tend to venture far from home, so I seem to know fewer people than I used to. Sometimes my neighbours Natalie and Spooky drop in or I say hi to elegant Alana who plays the violin.

I have a chat to Max, who runs the drycleaner's. I know Jim, the waiter at the café around the corner who is from Mauritius, and the rest of the cast of characters in my neck of the woods.

See, this is my world. It is small and might seem rather humdrum to someone with a gold elite frequent flier card, but really, stuff them. Because "Dunbar's Number" is one of the advantages of living in New Zealand.

University of Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with the famous explanation that we have a limit to the number of people we can comfortably think about and with whom we can form stable social bonds.

Dunbar's estimate was about 150.

It may be easier to have this sized group of social contacts in a small place like New Zealand, although I'm not so sure how long this will last. Economists say we must grow to 10 or 15 million to become an economically sustainable unit. That might make financial sense, but there could be other costs.

Another evolutionary scholar, Glenn Geher, argues not only are humans shaped for small-scale living, but he posits that the cost of failing to follow Dunbar's Number is seen in rising rates of mental illness. It is true that all kinds of mental disorders have higher prevalence rates in cities, including schizophrenia, depression and dementia. Dr Geher says from an evolutionary perspective, this fact is not surprising as large cities are an evolutionary mismatch - if our ancestors were shaped by nature to interact with 150 people at most, living in a city of millions is deeply out of sync with our nature.

This doesn't necessarily tally with my own experience. I imagine living in Maungaturoto could turn you into as much of a nutjob as living in Karachi (Pop:15 million). (Sorry to pick on you Maungaturoto but a friend who moved there said locals held the Bible up to him in the street as a shield to stop the big city sin from contaminating them.)

Nevertheless, the notion that we need to live in a way that allows us to connect meaningfully with a not-ever-changing group of people rings true to me.

Perversely, if you're living in a way where you are too jammed together you have to ignore your neighbours to show respect and that you are not a boundary-crasher.

It is all about feeling safe.

John Cleese talks about how to be creative we need to create a "tortoise enclosure" - where we feel comfortable enough to poke our head out and look around. I think he's right.

With this in mind, I might have to shamefacedly rethink my dismissive attitude to young people and what until now I have seen as their weird fetish about property. I have to admit I've not been terribly empathetic to young people (hetero-normative couples especially) complaining about not being able to afford a house.

When I was young the last thing I wanted to do was emulate my parents and buy a house. I wanted to run away and smoke Gitanes and write poetry and have intense sex with men who looked like Nick Cave. So I find the deeply conformist attitudes of young people who seem fixated on indoor outdoor flow and capital gains scarily conventional for their peachy age, not to mention materialistic. (I used to think like Bill Hicks: "Stop wanting everything. Everyone should have three T-shirts and eat rice and beans.")

So, my apologies young people, and do feel free to carry on moaning. But I could point out, finding your Dunbar Number of 150 people doesn't actually require that you need to move to a small town or even own a house.

You just need to get to know the people around you, where you are now, in your own hood. More public swimming pools are not a bad idea though.

- NZ Herald

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