How to be a neighbor

What Does It Mean to be a Neighbor?

When our now teenage daughter was ten years old, she was walking our dog and noticed that a neighbor’s car was broken into: shattered glass was on the ground and papers from the car were scattered about the street. She knocked on the door but no one was home. She collected the papers, clipped them together and left a note for the neighbors, describing the situation. She also left them her giving money – $20 at the time – as a contribution towards fixing the broken car window. Our neighbors were touched by the thoughtfulness, returned our daughter’s donation and wrote a thank you note back to her. Our daughter behaved like a good neighbor and our family made new friends a few doors down.

For decades, Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, created a platform to remind kids, but really all of us, of the power of kindness. He invited people to become part of his neighborhood by asking, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Nearly all of us are neighbors – i.e. we live adjacent or physically close to others – but not many of us are necessarily good neighbors. It’s an unfortunate reality for our neighbors, but also for us. Research indicates that knowing your neighbors reduces loneliness, increases trust and elevates overall well-being.

A quote attributed to poet William Butler Yeats

So, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

Step one for becoming a good neighbor is to actually know your neighbor. By this measure, there is significant room for improvement. According to research from the Pew Research Center, only about a quarter of people living in cities and suburbs profess to know all or most of their neighbors. For older adults, according to a recent study, nearly half report to know few or none of their neighbors. A clear relationship exists between loneliness among midlife and older adults and connections with their neighbors: Only 25% of those who know most or all of their neighbors are lonely as compared to 64% of those who know none of them.

Good neighbors are also more trusting of their neighbors. About two-thirds of people who know their neighbors would trust their neighbors with their house keys. Interestingly, older and wealthier people are more likely to trust neighbors who they know.

Being a good neighbor helps our well-being overall, too. A study found that people who felt connected to their neighbors had significantly fewer strokes than those who felt alienated. Researchers found the difference to be similar to that of a current smoker as compared to someone who has never smoked.

It’s unrealistic for most of us to be best friends with our neighbors. In our modern era, our social circles are often too large and our lives too busy (see why it’s good to Stay with Friends when traveling) to have our social circles revolve around our neighbors the way it did generations ago. But getting to know our immediate neighbors shouldn’t be too much of a chore.

What can be done to facilitate being a good neighbor?

Some of the responsibility falls on each of us. We have to make time and take the initiative to introduce ourselves. Bringing cookies doesn’t hurt, either. Research indicates that just introducing yourself to someone you don’t know generally improves the self-reported well-being of both parties. Odds are your neighbor may just be a friend you haven’t met yet.

Institutions can also play a part. I have a friend in Richmond whose church surveyed the congregation and found that few knew the names of their neighbors. Far fewer knew anything of personal substance about their neighbors. They were falling short on the biblical principle of loving your neighbor. In response, the church launched a challenge to the congregation to get to know their neighbors. Partially as a result, my friend and her daughters now have an adopted grandmother next door. They made the effort and all have been rewarded.

Seaside, Florida is an example of New Urbanism design to help promote neighborliness

The design of our places can help, too. New Urbanism, for example, promotes sidewalks, front porches and bike lanes to promote interaction among residents of a community. Third places, such as parks and green spaces, libraries and community pools, can also provide opportunities for regular neighbor interaction. (See When Third Place is Very Best Place to Be, Live & Thrive.) The World Health Organization (WHO) and AARP are helping educate urban planners on ways to make our places work better for people of all ages. We have found neighborhood schools to be a particularly effective way to get to know those around us; it has even been helpful to get to know older neighbors as there are ample opportunities for people of all ages to volunteer, including as judges for school projects.

Apartments, given their density of residents, can be a particularly ripe opportunity for cultivating good neighbors. We found this at The Stories at Congressional Plaza where creating a friendly culture was a clear benefit, as a recent Forbes article describes. I love the four-minute video Eat Together which casts a vision of what can happen when people come together to share a potluck meal. I have used this video for several keynote talks and it always get an emotional response from the audience.

We recently moved to Austin from Baltimore and, frankly, I haven’t been a very good neighbor. We’re renting a house before we move into a permanent home this summer, and I haven’t made the effort of introducing myself. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by some good neighbors. The neighbor to our left, Colleen, is a long-time resident and she introduced herself to us. She also alerted us to a pending problem with our sewer. It’s possible that she didn’t need to read the research to understand that that making a connection was important to both of our well-being.

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