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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Stay with friends - packed luggage

Stay With Friends

This weekend I am getting together with several of my closest friends. These are lifelong friends from college. We’ve been through a lot over the decades – from international adventures and weddings to the loss or physical decline of parents and other challenges life has put in our way. We live in different parts of the country, from Seattle to Philadelphia to New York City to Austin, so getting together in person is a rare treat.

These friendships weren’t forged in 45-minute coffee meetings or 60-minute lunch dates. These friendships weren’t driven by efficiency and ROI; they were forged by circumstance and inconvenience. They happened because we were roommates and we imposed on each other’s spaces and schedules. We sacrificed sleep for important conversations. We shared pizza at 2am when none of us were hungry but just wanted to be together. We planned practical jokes that took precedence over studying.

I may have done worse in a given class because of these misadventures, but I am certain I got more out of college.

Stay with friends - old friends on the beach
Some of the best friendships are forged through spontaneous conversations

But things are different now. We are busy. Not just in the family life stage busy, but in new modern life busy.

And people don’t answer their phones anymore. Maybe it’s just me, but I get sent to voicemail more often than in the past. This is a phenomenon among my good friends, too. It’s even happening with my mom. When my mom doesn’t take my calls, it gets my attention.

But I don’t think it’s me. As a society, we are becoming increasingly enslaved by efficiency: we’re plagued by busyness.

Writer Judith Shulevitz unpacks this issue in her article Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore in the Atlantic. Part of the dynamic is driven by hectic work schedules, either through the increasing prevalence of ad hoc demands of gig economy workers or the 24×7 nature of many work environments. She highlights how enterprise work tools, like Slack, Trello and online group calendaring, are now being used in the home to help manage the chaos. Somehow, the technology that promised to create freedom and time has done just the opposite. She suggests that many of us need to do a better job of creating boundaries and elevating the most important.

For example, have we reached a point that talking to a good friend requires a scheduled call, possibly weeks out?

My antidote: I impose. I travel frequently and my new mandate is to stay with friends wherever possible. It can be inconvenient – sometimes it’s nice to relax with room service and a movie in a hotel or to feel the accomplishment of being on top of my email – but there is no equivalent to catching up with a friend in person and in their own environment. And it can be inconvenient for those hosting, too. Life can be busy enough on a given weekday night, and making a bed and an extra meal can be a bit much.

Stay with friends - guest room
No one is going to confuse this with a contemporary hotel room, but you get to stay with friends

The experiment is going well so far. I’ve been able to drop in on birthday parties and neighborhood get-togethers, grab a late night beer and go on morning runs. I’ve been able to get a window into a friend’s life that Facebook, Instagram and text messaging won’t allow. I have some friends going through harder times, and spending time with them in person and off the clock has been a gift.

Sometimes, staying with friends hasn’t worked. When schedules haven’t aligned, the gesture of asking to stay with friends has signaled that these friends matter to me. In an age of disconnection, even that message can be valuable.

The reality is that proximity matters in relationships and in your overall well-being (see The Power of Place blog for more on the research.) As Susan Pinker reminds us in her book, The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, there is simply no adequate substitute for seeing people in person. Sometimes, you just need to take full advantage of when you are physically close to friends.

I urge you to consider staying with friends when you have the chance. And make it easier for people to stay with you. Make it known that you have space and would welcome a visit. Not everyone is as comfortable imposing as I am, bless my heart, and that nudge can make all the difference.

These considerations are important as we plan our lives and our investment in place and space, too. Do you have space for a friend or family member to visit? If not, what can be changed to make it possible? For example, can an office be converted to be a makeshift guest room? If you are looking to downsize, will your new space have room for guests? In our modern era of busyness, making it easy for people to impose can make all the difference to stay close to your friends.

So be careful. I may soon be coming to your city and you may be on my hit list.

In fact, it’s happening this weekend. For our reunion, we’re not staying in a hotel or at a resort. We’re staying at our friend’s home in the Philadelphia area. I don’t expect to get the surgeon general’s recommended hours of sleep or really much sleep at all. And I already know I won’t be taking many calls (sorry, Mom) because I’ll be with friends. That’s a good kind of busy.

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The First Day of School is Not Just For Kids: A Thirst for Belonging in Us All

Back to school is often a chaotic time as kids and families shift gears from the slow days of summer to the routine and rigors of school. Our kids started school this week – new schools for each of them as we recently relocated to Austin, Texas. There was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. And an underlying tension of belonging vs. fitting in.

But that feeling of the first day of school is not just for kids. The longer we live, the more likely we will encounter many “first days of school”. Whether by choice or circumstance, we will need to step out and create new chapters of our lives. Some chapters occur from positive life changes, such as getting married, having babies or sending kids to college; other chapters are sparked by loss, such as divorce, the loss of a spouse or financial hardship.

For at least some of us, these chapters can feel more awkward and scary than the first day of middle school. At least when we’re young we enter these stages as a cohort. Later in life, we’re more often navigating our new schedules on our own. With each new chapter, we are presented with opportunities to find our true belonging or means of fitting in. Our attitude and choices can go a long way towards finding the right situation or not.

Brene Brown has been a leading voice on the importance of
belonging through her books and TED talks

Brene Brown is a leading voice on the significance of finding true belonging. Ms. Brown and her research rose to prominence with her TEDx talk on The Power of Vulnerability which has been viewed over 40 million times.  Her book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, provides a framework for thinking about belonging in our modern society. She defines belonging as:

The innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it.

In short, belonging is of greater value than fitting in, and fitting in can get in the way of finding belonging. Ironically, middle schoolers seem to clearly understand the difference. In Brown’s work, kids provided the following distinction:

“Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”

Through her research, Brown believes that true belonging can be achieved through a combination of better understanding others, speaking truth but in a civil way, seeking shared experiences with others (including seizing the power of moments) and being vulnerable yet committed to who you are.

While Brown’s principles and supporting anecdotes are helpful, her research overlooks the importance of place.

In our search for belonging, our choice of place matters. Sometimes, our understanding of place focuses exclusively on the look and feel of our home. These physical dimensions are important and, for some, critical. However, they aren’t the complete picture.

Understanding how our place ties us into a broader community is critical. Key questions to consider include:  What are people like around us? Are people sufficiently similar to us? Sufficiently different? Are there people of all ages? Can we engage and learn from each other? How available can we make ourselves for real connection? Can we be ourselves?

Potluck meals can be magical in bringing people together
creating a sense of connection and belonging

I have experienced how physical place can help create a sense of connection and belonging. At The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville, Maryland, a joint development between SmartLiving 360 and Federal Realty Investment Trust, we designed amenity spaces to facilitate interaction and our lifestyle ambassador serves as a catalyst for connection, often of an intergenerational nature. In one case, a family moved across the country and found babysitters and tutors for their kids among residents within the community. Spontaneous potlucks formed. A sense of belonging was forged. It was more than an apartment.

I have also seen where it does not come together. I advise senior living communities on how to be more successful. In one instance, a resident of a community was also a member of the board of directors and helped in a strategic planning process. He appreciated what the community offered but, after several years, he realized it wasn’t for him. He concluded that he did not belong or fit in so he left. At age 83. Being committed to belonging takes courage.

While our kids officially experienced their first day of school this week, our recent move to Austin from Baltimore has evoked that feeling of the first day of school for all of us. Individually and collectively, we are searching for our sense of belonging in a new environment. Using Brown’s principles and selecting the right to place to live will help us now and in future life chapters.