Power of Place

To a Degree, Longevity is a Choice

We’re fortunate to live in an era of unprecedented longevity. In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was 50 years. By 2050, life expectancy is expected to nearly double to 94 years. Longevity is one of the greatest gifts of our modern era – so long as these extra years are high quality years. Shouldn’t we focus on thriving, not just surviving?

Research tells us that the length of our life and the quality of our life is more dependent on lifestyle choices than our DNA. Do you have purpose? Are you socially connected? Physically active? Mentally engaged? Financially secure?

Do you live in a place best for you?

Power of Place

Place – including key dimensions at the metropolitan, neighborhood and built environment levels – matters a lot. It plays a big part in your social network. Weather can affect your health and topography can impact your desire to be active. The prevailing culture can influence your values, including your ability to connect with others and grow intellectually. Economic policies and growth prospects of an area effect your personal balance sheet.  High cost areas can drain wallets, particularly for those on a fixed income.

Our neighborhoods can influence how connected we are to our each other. According to a recent study, about 20% of people regularly spend time with their neighbors, down 33% from the 1970s. But neighborhoods that are cohesive – that, for example, promote block parties, have engaged civic leagues and have public schools that draw from the local area – can counter these national trends. They create opportunities for engagement across generations and social circles and can elevate our personal well-being.

At a more granular level, our built environment matters a lot, too. The layout of our homes, including front porches, can be conducive to family meals and hospitality. Efficient design can minimize ongoing costs from maintenance to utility costs. Universal design elements, such as slip resistance tiles and wider doorways, can make homes work better for people of all ages and stages. An emerging WELL standard is helping inspire design that is proven to have a positive impact of people’s health and wellness. Harvard University professors and researchers, Jennifer Molinsky and Ann Forsyth, recently made the strong case for housing in their essay, Housing, the Built Environment, and the Good Life.

Insights from Researchers and Policy Makers

In a number of respects, we’re only beginning to learn how important place is.

Researchers are using big data to provide granular insights and policy makers are using these insights to help craft policy recommendations. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that adjacent zip codes in Baltimore yield life expectancies that differ by decades. U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah has created the Social Capital Project to identify states and specific counties where social capital – the value of personal networks of relationships – is particularly strong or weak. Utah and parts of the Midwest along with three northeast states rank highest. Raj Chetty, a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellow, and his colleagues at Harvard University have created Opportunity Insights, which includes an interactive map called The Opportunity Atlas. This atlas links together disparate datasets to provide specific sub-zip code insights around economic opportunity and other outcomes. The disparity in projected outcomes based on geography can be stark. All of this suggests that there is potential to materially improve our society by improving place.

Austin Texas

Austin, Texas is one of the cities in the engagement phase of the global Age-Friendly Initiative

Tools to Help Make Choices and Policy Changes to Create More Options

There are an increasing range of tools to help people make decisions about places to live. For those that value walkability, walkscore.com computes a walkability rating down to a specific address. It incorporates elements such as proximity to groceries and shopping, entertainment, green space and schools. AARP took things a step further with its Livability Index. This index incorporates walkability and transportation as well as five other factors, including housing affordability and access, environment, health, engagement and economic opportunity.

Place matters at least as much as we age. More people, organizations and policy makers are recognizing this and trying to do something about it. In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities which includes about seven hundred communities across thirty-nine countries. These age-friendly initiatives focus on making system-wide changes, such as in housing, transportation, economic development and community services, among others, to make it easier for people of all ages, but especially older adults, to thrive within their existing communities.

These age-friendly efforts are particularly active in the U.S. Three states and 305 communities – representing approximately 75 million people or about 20% of the U.S. population – have joined the movement. These initiatives develop over multiple years, typically with a formal planning period followed by an implementation period.  Atlanta, Austin, Pittsburgh, New York City and Washington, D.C., are some examples of cities currently in the action planning phase.

Age-friendly initiatives will help make tomorrow’s communities more livable and online tools, like walkscore.com and the AARP Livability Index, will make it easier to find and rank them and identify what’s best for you.

New Housing Models on the Horizon

New housing models will also help. Core to the SmartLiving 360 model is the power of place. Our vision is to create housing models in areas that rank high in walkability and livability and to incorporate unique design elements, technology and a cultural ethos that elevates personal health and well-being for people of all ages. We have witnessed the positive impact.

The Courage of Making a Change for the Better

Just because we may have an option to live elsewhere does not necessarily mean that exercising that option is a good decision. However, it many cases it may be that a better living option exists, whether it is to a more appropriate metropolitan area, neighborhood or house. But, change is hard and moving, especially if one has been in one house for many years, can be particularly difficult and the transaction costs can be high. For couples and families, it also involves a joint decision often with competing priorities and values.

However, the benefit of a change in place can be enormous. Moving to the right place at the right time can literally add years to your life. Such decisions are worth careful thought. It is also important to summon the courage to act if a decision to change is the right one for you.

So, do you live in a place best for you?

Choosing Happiness with Purpose

Finding Purpose for the Long Haul

Charlotte Seigel is a tour de force. She is passionate about social work, psychiatric work in particular. She also believes in actively collaborating with colleagues to improve the field.

In fact, she has been passionate about this work for over seventy years! Charlotte is 97 years old.

Last year, Charlotte was the recipient of an award for honorary recognition for contributions in the field of clinical social work from the California Society of Clinical Social Work. For years, she worked at Stanford before starting her own practice in midlife. She continued to see patients until just a few years ago, well into her 90s. Patients would come to her retirement community for her services. She remained active in the Mid-Peninsula district California Society for Clinical Social Work and had been instrumental in bringing high-profile speakers, including Dr. Carol Dweck who has gained attention for articulating the value of the growth mindset as compared to the fixed mindset. Charlotte is a lifelong case study of the growth mindset.

In Charlotte’s words, “My social work self, my clinical self, my total being self, they are all wrapped together. There isn’t a separate clinician and separate Charlotte Siegel. It’s all a part of the definition and a part of what I am able to give to clients who come to see me – a sense of life moving for me and for them.”

Charlotte has had an integrated sense of purpose for a long time and it turns out that purpose matters a lot. It’s not happenchance that she has lived such a long and vital life.

Choosing Happiness with Purpose

Our culture is obsessed with happiness. Nearly 50% of people in the US set New Year’s resolutions, many with the aim of leading a happier life. In surveys, most people list happiness as their top value, and self-help books and life coaches are up part of a multibillion-dollar industry of happiness. It seems to work well with book titles, too: The Happiness Curve is one of the latest examples.

Part of the challenge is that we often don’t understand or fully appreciate the different definitions of happiness or life satisfaction.  Going back to the days of Greek philosophers, much thought has been directed in this important area. There are two forms of well-being — hedonia, or the ancient Greek word for what behavioral scientists often call happiness, and eudaimonia, or what they call meaningfulness. The happy life is defined by seeking pleasure and enjoyment, whereas the meaningful life is bigger.

In her TED talk and recent book, The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith presents the case for choosing happiness with meaning. She points to the research that shows that the pursuit of happiness – hedonia — negatively affects our well-being and such pursuits tend to have only a brief boost in mood that soon fades. One of the most powerful examples comes from research around lottery winners. Six months after you hit the lottery the average lottery winner has permanent baseline levels that are slightly lower than they were the day before they bought the ticket.

In contrast, while life with meaning can be associated with stress, effort and struggle, it can also be more deeply satisfying and sustaining. As one example, in a recent study, researchers from the University of Ottawa followed college students and found that they behaved very differently depending on whether they emphasized meaning or self-focused happiness. Those that focused on meaning, such as helping friends, did not feel as happy right after the experiment but, over a longer period of time, reported fewer negative moods and expressed a prolonged sense of inspiration and enrichment than those focused on self-oriented happiness.

It turns out that happiness with meaning is a mindset – a choice we make – that is more valuable and sustainable than hedonistic happiness.

A Movement for Choosing Happiness with Meaning and Purpose in the Age of Longevity

Of course, living a life of satisfaction has been important since the beginning of man. What’s different now is that we are living a lot longer; thirty years longer than our contemporaries from a century ago. Charlotte Seigel is a living example of purpose sustained over the long haul.

Marc Freedman and his colleagues at Encore.org are helping create a movement of purpose. Marc is the founder and CEO of Encore.org, a not-for-profit with global influence that serves as an innovation hub tapping the talent of older people as a force for good, and one of the leading voices around embracing the opportunities for greater purpose in the age of longevity.

Earlier this year, Encore.org and Stanford, led by William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and author of The Path to Purpose, released a research report on purpose sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. This report, “Purpose in the Encore Years: Shaping Lives of Meaning and Contribution”, defined purpose as “sustained commitment to goals that are meaningful to the self and that also contribute in some way to the common good, to something larger than or beyond the self.”

In this report, they found that approximately one third of older adults they surveyed currently exhibit such purpose, representing approximately 34 million people if extrapolated to the population at large.  Among other findings, they also learned that purpose was not a zero-sum game. People who place a high priority on beyond-the-self goals simultaneously endorse views of later life that embrace self-oriented activities such as continued learning and leisure, even more so than people who aren’t engaged with purpose.

Where You Live Matters with Purpose

We can’t expect where we live to automatically give our lives purpose. However, it can make a difference. As a previous Smart Living 360 blog (“On Personal Connection”) pointed out, our networks influence our well-being. If our friends’ friends are happy, we are more likely to be happy. Being around others that value purpose will naturally impact our priority on purpose.

Also, our living environments can help us up to focus on things that matter most. Living spaces that free us up from home maintenance – things that can take time and resources – allows us to allocate more time and energy towards purpose. Further, built environments that minimize risks of falls and make it easier to be physically active can help us stay healthy longer to actively pursue our passions.

Finding Your Purpose at Any Age

Finding your purpose is not easy but it’s vitally important. In the context of a long life, our purpose may change and our “encore” chapter of life may create new opportunities to choose happiness with meaning. Or, for the lucky among us like Charlotte Seigel, our extra years may create additional avenues to amplify and extend our lifelong purpose and inspire younger generations along the way.

Block Party

Be Healthy: Host a Block Party

Every Memorial Day weekend, our neighborhood throws a block party. After months of pseudo hibernation from the mid-Atlantic winter and unpredictable spring, it serves as an opportunity to bring people together and celebrate the upcoming summertime.

Anticipation runs high. Planning starts months in advance. Secure the permit. Meet with the “committee” to go over the plans for entertainment, food and drinks. Kids create a flyer and go door-to-door to spread the word. We all hope and pray for good weather.

Whether it rains or shines, lots of people show up. Naturally, there is strong participation on our block but it has spread beyond both intentionally and unintentionally. People come from other blocks and even neighborhoods. I think there is some block party envy and we don’t mind. In fact, we like it.

Our entertainment is curated from the neighborhood. Young and old. Our nine-year old did a drum solo one year and an older neighbor played his fiddle. Our most frequent performer is a band of moms and dads who play folk cover songs. One time, I joined to sing Me & Bobby McGee. Unfortunately, it was recorded. Darn kids.

Not everyone likes the block party. A woman a few blocks away was unhappy with the music and complained. I took a break from the party and introduced myself. She said, “I don’t mind loud music, but I mind your music that loud.” She may have a point. Nonetheless, she later joined the party for the fellowship despite the music being even louder in person.

People stay a while. One year, a couple got in a tiff because she didn’t want to leave and he felt the obligation of other Memorial Day parties to visit. She won. Sometimes, especially in our busy culture, there’s something nice about just being. It’s exceedingly rare.

In our experience, block parties help build community. People have an excuse to get together. It brings together people from different circles, even if our living quarters are geographically approximate. It’s fun to see long-time residents connect with new neighbors. I also enjoy seeing the mix of young and old and everywhere in between.

The benefits of a block party linger. Parents find babysitters and babysitters find parents. Recently, we were away and furniture was successfully delivered to our house thanks to a helpful neighbor.

It builds what social scientists call social capital. Social capital is “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Social capital is a good thing.

The problem is that, as a society, we are suffering from decreasing social capital. As this happens, loneliness and social isolation increase. In his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal, Senator Ben Sasse identifies loneliness as the number one health epidemic – citing its prevalence and negative impact on life expectancy – and root of our unhealthy political partisanship.

In a recent survey of over 20,000 people, it was found that nearly half of those surveyed reported feeling some times or always lonely. The loneliest group was one of the youngest: people age 18-22. Generation Z – or the “iGen Gneration” according to Jean Twenge of San Diego State University – is the first generation to be raised with – or by – smartphones.

Older people are lonely, too. In another study of people 45 and above, about 1/3 were identified as lonely. This proportion is the same as a comparable study from 2000. The difference now, however, is that with people living longer, there are more people in this bucket. 5 million more, now up to about 45 million.

Part of the challenge is that many neighborhoods are becoming less neighborly. According to a recent study, about 20% of people regularly spend time with their neighbors, down 33% from the 1970s. Sadly, 1/3 of Americans never interact with their neighbors. Not surprisingly, according to another study, for those midlife and older, over 60% of people who are lonely have never spoken to a neighbor.

Connecting with our neighbors is about more than goodwill. It’s healthy. One study found that higher neighborhood social cohesion lowers the risk of heart attacks. Another found that good neighbor relationships lower risk of strokes.

Block parties aren’t the only approach. In Indiana, there is a movement to create porch parties. Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis started the effort in 2014 and it has now grown statewide, including fifty-two counties and seven hundred porches participating. “The one really beautiful thing about porching is that it’s outward facing. Random people from your block can walk by and come on your porch and it creates a closer-knit block,” says Kyle Ragsdale, an Indianapolis resident and porch party host.

In theory, building community should be easier in apartment homes given the close proximity of people. But, it often requires intentionality. At Smart Living 360, “connection” is one of our three anchoring principles and we encourage this through organized events and supporting resident organized potlucks. It has fostered friendships, including intergenerational relationships.

Researchers believe that social isolation can be contagious. When one person disconnects from another, it leaves both people with one less contact.

What if block parties could be contagious? Maybe they are. This year, we got caught up in the busyness of life and the Memorial Day block party didn’t happen. However, a friend from another block stepped in and hosted a block party last month. It filled that sense of connection and neighborliness that we missed this spring.

Now it’s your turn. Go host a block party. You, your block and your neighborhood will be better for it.

SufferFest

An Unlikely Paring that Works

Peanut butter and chocolate. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito. Suffer and festivals? Yes, SufferFest.

SufferFest is a bi-annual gathering that brings together middle-aged men from across the country for a day of nearly unimaginable pain (suffer) and outdoor adventure & comradery (festival). The most recent excursion was to Bryce National Park in Utah. 45 miles and 10,000 vertical feet. All of it. In one day. I did it. I survived. It was great and it was awful. And, if they let me, I’ll do it again.

SufferFest is a creation of two close friends, Rick and Ben. As you might suspect, these are not normal people. In the late 90s, they competed together in the Eco-Challenge in Argentina, an adventure race that spanned multiple days of straight racing involving trekking, canoeing, mountaineering and more. Their stories of joy and pain are bountiful. One might think that now – being in their mid-40s – they moved on from this chapter in their lives. They did not and, instead, they have decided to make ridiculous adventures mildly accessible to others. They’re like a good virus that is a little bit pernicious.

The crazy thing is that it’s getting popular. What started out modestly a few years ago with a few guys hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has now grown into a thing. With each successive trip, the list of interested parties grows. Twenty four of us traveled to Bryce in the spring. Over thirty people are signed up for a trip next month to the Great Range in the Adirondacks.

The Case for Suffering

We’re learning more and more about human longevity. Research tells us that our longevity is largely based on our environment and lifestyle choices. Our genes only account for about 20% of our longevity. Thriving in the Age of Longevity is largely about making smart decisions. Apparently choosing to suffer is among them.

Our bodies are wired to be lazy. One study by researchers in Canada showed how we will subconsciously change our walking gait to save as little as 5% of our energy. However, research also tells us that pushing our bodies to the point of strain and pain (within reason) is good for us. It improves our performance and health in the near and long-term. Interval training can add significant improvements in maximum VO2, a measure of how well our bodies can use oxygen and the most widely accepted scientific indicator of fitness, even at middle age and beyond. Regular, intense workouts have shown to improve health of the heart as well as strengthen the immune system. Middle-aged committed exercisers – those working out at least three to four times a week – have been shown to have a physiological makeup more akin to less active people decades younger than their age cohort.

SufferFest debatably takes suffering to a level beyond what’s necessary. I’ve contested this point quite unsuccessfully with the founders. Personally, I would prefer a little more fest and a little less suffer. How about 30 miles, instead of 45? I think that would be sufficiently painful. They disagree. They see the psychological benefit of what sport psychologist Dolores Christensen describes as “embracing the suck” when the pain hits particularly high proportions and one is able to make it to the other side with a sense of euphoria and accomplishment.

And that’s part of the point. As we look to the future, we’re far more likely to take it easy and underestimate what’s possible and what’re capable of, particularly as we get older. We can all fall victim to ageism and the sense of inevitable decline.

Coming for the Adventure, Staying for the Community

People may initially come for the adventure or to try and prove they haven’t lost it but they stay for the comradery. The sense of community. It turns out this is not unusual and, in fact, It’s a growing trend. According to Casper ter Kuille, a researcher at Harvard Divinity School and Executive Director at On Being’s Impact Lab, more people are turning to exercise groups, such as SoulCycle and CrossFit, as their form of church. In her research, she found that people are longing for relationships that have meaning and the experience of belonging rather than just surface-level relationships and that “going through an experience that tests you to your limits, especially if you’re doing partner or team-based fitness routines, there’s an inevitable bonding that comes from experiencing hardship together.” Sounds like SufferFest.

I also learned that SufferFest is not a one day experience. It takes months of preparation and at least a few days of recovery. It’s in that time of training that people get together at least weekly in Baltimore, Vermont, Santa Barbara and other locales where there are a cluster of participants. Workouts, such as hill repeats and long trail runs, are posted online to demonstrate progress prior to the event.

Playful banter helps add to the anticipation. Email chains with dozens of responses from all around the country is not uncommon. Ben recently encouraged participants to comment on SufferFest in haiku. It’s a creative lot.

SufferFest Group Photo

Choose Your “SufferFest”

Surely, SufferFest is not for everyone. In fact, I’m not sure it’s for me. I hope for a little more fest and a little less suffer. But there are clearly meaningful benefits. Broader research supports the health and relational benefits and we all feel it. Ironically, though one might feel like you may die in the moment, odds are you’re likely on a path to live longer and better.

For those that are curious about SufferFest, I have some good news for you. Rick and Ben have created a website (www.sufferfest.net) for more information and are looking to create a toolkit to help other self-initiated adventure seekers launch their own sufferfests. Helping others suffer. What a legacy.

Getting By With Help From My Friends

With a Little Help from My Animal Friends

The Okavango Delta, a UNESCO Heritage Site, is located in Northern Botswana. Each year, water flows from the Angolan highlands and floods parts of the Kalahari Desert. The lush habitat attracts scores of animals including giraffes, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, lions and leopards, among many others. It also is home to many types of birds.

The beauty of the landscape is striking but what is particularly noteworthy is how the animals help protect each other. Groups of mixed animals, such as zebras, wildebeest and impala, often commingle and help alert and protect each other from danger, such as stalking lion and zebras.

Birds, in particular, serve an important role. With their “birds eye view”, they can detect a predator stalking its prey from a distance and, with a unique call, warn the prey of impending risk.  Impala, similar to North American deer, are one of the primary beneficiaries and are particularly close to their feathered friends. These relationships have literally saved lives.

With a Little Help from My Human Friends

Our living environments may not look quite as pristine as the Okavango Delta nor are the daily threats to our lives as overtly obvious as stalking lions, but we also rely on our environment and friends to survive and thrive. Research tells us that only about 20% of our longevity is linked to our genes; lifestyle and environment are the primary drivers.

The reality is that we need a robust, face-to-face social network at all stages of life. In fact, Susan Pinker, Author of The Village Effect, argues that having an integrated social life is the best predictor of health and longevity.  Indeed, rigorous epidemoiological studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to a host of unhealthy conditions, including heart disease, cancer and depression. This is a pressing issue in today’s culture, in part, because there is an increasing number of single person households; it simply takes more effort to stay in touch with people when you live alone.

The good news is that we can choose to invest in relationships. A recent New York Times article, “The Power of Positive People”, talks about the impact of choosing relationships with positive people. Researchers have found that certain behaviors appear to be contagious or “caught” through our social networks. Our weight, anxiety and overall happiness are examples of where we are influenced by how our friends measure in these areas.

Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones, has partnered with federal and state health officials, to make it easier for people to create long-lasting, positive friendships. In his work in studying people that have lived exceptionally long, healthy lives, Dan has found the significance of long lasting relationships. In Okinawa, Japan, where life expectancy of women is the oldest in the world, people form a social network called a moai – a group of a handful of friends who offer social, logistic and emotional support for a lifetime. Dan is working to create an American version of moais in a dozen cities in the US.

Importance of Our Physical Environment

Much like the Okavango Delta on its animals, our physical environment has an important impact on us. It can influence the quality of the air we breath, our likelihood of eating healthy foods and our propensity to exercise, among many factors.

Our physical environment can also help dictate the friends we choose and the frequency at which we socialize with friends. As David Greusel, an architect, points out in his article “Intentional Isolation in Suburbia”, the typical post-World War II home of suburbia has an outdoor social space: a patio, in back, which is “utterly antisocial and utterly normal”. On the other hand, according to writer Abigail Murrish in her article “Porching in Indianapolis”, there is a movement in Indianapolis to take advantage of its plethora of homes with porches to have regular porch parties. At last count, the porch party movement has expanded statewide with fifty-two counties Indiana counties and seven hundred porches participating.

The power of intentional design is key in Smart Living 360 developments. We create common spaces that are designed to foster interaction and unit floor plans conducive to healthy living.  We also create a mix of curated and organically driven events that bring people together. People have witnessed the benefits of this approach, including opportunities to create intergenerational relationships among residents.

Unlike Animals, We Have Choice 

Animals in the Okavango Delta have adapted to best suit their environment. Our opportunity is different: we are able to largely choose our physical environment as well as our social networks. Let’s hope that each of us chooses wisely and, together, we can keep the inherent perils of life at least arms distance away.

The Opposite of Loneliness

The English language has its limitations. For example, take the word ‘love’. The English language uses one word which the Greeks needed seven words – ranging from eros (sexual love) to philia (friendship love) to agape (love of stranger) – to accurately describe.

A similar example is with the opposite of loneliness. Merriam-Webster defines lonely as “being without company”, “cut off from others”, “sad from being alone” or “producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation”.  According to the late researcher on loneliness and pioneer of social neuroscience, Dr. John Cacioppo, English doesn’t offer an adequate antonym. He suggested the closest proxy was “normal”, although that is clearly not a satisfactory solution. It’s too all-encompassing. It’s not descriptive enough.

Marina Keegan, a senior at Yale University at the time and captured in her New York Times bestselling posthumous collection of essays and stories The Opposite of Loneliness, didn’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness but she knew that’s what she wanted. She says:

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place. 

It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

Sadly, Keegan didn’t experience the opposite of loneliness in the real world as she died in a car accident just weeks before graduation.

Loneliness is Becoming Normal

Unfortunately, loneliness itself is becoming increasingly normal. Loneliness has doubled since the 1980s and now over 40% of adults report feeling lonely. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the former US Surgeon General, , in his Harvard Business Review cover story indicates that loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.

One the most powerful predictors of loneliness is living alone. This is particularly threatening for older adults as about 1/3 of Americans over 65 live alone and over 50% of women over 75 live alone.

But, of course, people living among others can still feel lonely. In this regard, Dr. Cacippo describes loneliness as “perceived isolation.” The viral video, #EatTogether, by a Canadian grocer illustrates that you can live among plenty of people in an apartment building and still feel disconnected.

This phenomenon is not unique to the United States. The UK has over 9 million people suffering from loneliness. More than a third of older adults report being overwhelmed by loneliness. A whopping 80% of British citizens over 85 live alone.

Japan is perhaps the most challenged with loneliness coupled with the highest percentage – about a 25% — of its citizens 65 or older. Demographics coupled with frayed families and communities have made it particularly difficult according to a recent in-depth article by the New York Times (“A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death”). Sadly some people are even committing crimes to benefit from the social connection in prison.

How Can We Make The Opposite of Loneliness Normal Again

More seems to be known about increasing loneliness than what to do about it. The UK made a PR splash by creating a “Minister of Loneliness” in January. The anticipated focus of this ministry is to (a) create practices and programs that cultivate conversation, friendship and empathy: the founding of community allotments where solitary folks might gather, and (b) instigate knock-on-door initiatives, with volunteers targeting lonely souls. But it is an open debate as to whether we can institutionalize the elimination of loneliness.

Dr. Cacioppo’s research tested a number of methods and tactics, including many that did not demonstrate positive success. One successful tactic is to change how lonely people think about other people, having them understand what happens when their brain goes into self-preservation mode. Dr. Cacioppo’s research suggests that treating it like a disease is difficult because social connection requires a two-way relationship with others.

One simple yet significant approach is to more commonly practice kindness. Lonely people need an especially heavy dose of kindness. If more people were able to identify those lonely around us and choose to act kindly, say by an empathetic cashier to a lonely shopper at check-out, it would certainly help.

The Important Role of Where You Live

What is probably not mentioned enough in these conversations is the role of where we live in the context of loneliness. Living alone is a driver of loneliness. Fortunately, there are emerging, alternative housing models that help facilitate interaction and connection. For example, co-housing, a communal living approach that integrates shared spaces and a common house for community meals, is a popular housing option in Denmark with some successes in the US and has demonstrated to improve social connection, particularly across generations. EngAGE is an organization that integrates a whole person approach to creative living providing college-level programs in the arts, wellness and lifelong learning into existing communities.

Living in cities or in more dense suburbs (or “sub-urbs”) offers the prospect of a greater number of interactions with a diverse number of people. Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, points out that technology can be helpful in bringing people together for important face-to-face connection. In her research, she has found that it’s not just close friends that keep people from being lonely; it is also a broader network of connections, in concert with close friendships, that help people thrive.

At Smart Living 360, we believe location, design and an ethos of social connection can go a long way towards helping build sustained social connection. Walkable locations make it easy for people to see others. Accessible, communal spaces designed for formal and informal connection make it easier to get to know your neighbor. In addition, having a culture where social connection is important helps residents self-select to be part of such a community. Our Lifestyle Ambassador is central in our approach as he knows each resident by name and serves as a catalyst for creating community. We have witnessed the positive impact.

The Opposite of Loneliness is Our Responsibility

Technology advances, shifting family dynamics and changing demographics are all conspiring to make loneliness more common. However, as we all become increasingly aware of the risks to our health and well-being, it is important that we make lifestyle decisions to ward off the hazards of loneliness, particularly as we age. Fortunately, new, innovative housing models will make it easier to make embrace the opposite of loneliness as every stage of life.

Perennials

Are you a Perennial?

What is a Perennial?

For garden enthusiasts, a perennial (plant) is a plant that lives for more than two years. Perennial flowers, like lilies, daisies and poppies, grow and bloom over the spring and summer, die every autumn and winter, and then return in the spring from their rootstock. These flowers are ever-blooming.

However, according to Gina Pell in her blog “Meet the Perennials”, a perennial can mean something else. She asserts that a Perennial is a type of person. A person that is “ever-blooming, knows what’s happening in the world, stays current with technology and has friends of all ages.” Perennials get involved, stay curious, mentor others, are passionate, compassionate, creative, collaborative and so on. Her examples include: Lady Gaga + Tony Bennett, Pharrell Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, Malala Yousafzai, Senator John McCain, among others.

Most important is a Perennial is not defined by age, but by a mindset and way of life. They push beyond traditional boundaries and don’t see life as a “one-dimensional timeline that runs from birth to death.”

From Demographics to Psychographics

Marketers tend to bucket consumers into categories. One of the most common categories is by age or generation. Millennials. Generation X. Boomers. Greatest Generation. Teenagers. 55+. Seniors. And, of course, each of these categories comes with their own stereotypes, like how all Millennials eat avocado toast or can’t afford their lifestyle (watch Millennial International video for a fun spoof on this).

Available consumer data makes demographic analysis easy. But what if the straight forward analysis is the wrong analysis? Consider this: I may have more in common – what I am drawn to purchase and consume — with my curious teenage niece on the opposite coast or my wise friend thirty years my senior in suburban Texas than I do with my fellow 40-somethings in the urban mid-Atlantic. Demographic analysis can’t spot Perennials.

This is why psychographics – the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria – is becoming increasingly relevant for marketers.

When It Comes to Housing, Perennials Prefer Age Integration, not Segregation

Where do Perennials want to live?

Maybe it’s good to start to look at where they would not want to live. A recent article in the NY Times real estate section (“Resort-Style Living for Graying Boomers”) which highlights the growth of 55+ age restricted housing in the greater New York market may provide some insights by looking at the online comments section. Perennials offered plenty of opinions like:

  • “I don’t mind getting old, but the last thing I want to do is to surround myself with other old people. I like living in a neighborhood populated by Millennials and young families.”
  • (on living in an age-restricted resort community) “I couldn’t justify the cost and unsettling feeling of being surrounded by people who lived to go to the clubhouse daily, and made it seem that was the main reason for waking up every day… having moved, now I am with people of all ages with different outlooks, making life much more interesting.”
  • “I don’t want to live among a bunch of people my age or older. I’ve been in this house for 38 years and am watching a third generation of new babies. The younger folks do appreciate our knowledge and experience and I have all the tools any one needs to borrow and I keep with the changing mores just talking to them.”

Perennials see the benefits of living in the cities and more dense suburban areas – “sub-urban” according to Smart Growth America describes – that bring people together of different backgrounds and talents all within close proximity of desirable amenities.

It’s a Good Time to be an (Older) Perennial

At some point, physical needs and accommodations become important and relevant factors in housing for older Perennials. Fortunately, a number of trends are in favor of Perennials. One, the World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a global Age-Friendly cities and communities initiative and has spurred hundreds of cities and communities to make their environments more accommodating for people of all ages. Second, technology – as we have looked at previously – is making it easier and easier to have services delivered on an as needed basis and cost-effectively. Third, substantial real estate development in walkable, vibrant areas is creating a swath of new residential options.

At Smart Living 360, we have a residential model that incorporates elements of a walkable location, smart design and sense of community to attract an intergenerational mix of people, including Perennials, and people like it.

So, Are you a Perennial?

Maybe Gina Pell is right. Maybe for most of us how we think and what we value should matter more than what generation we are part of. Maybe we may have more in common across generations than within them.

Maybe even “perennial” will more commonly be used to describe a type of person than a type of flower. Regardless, it should be associated with something that is ever-blooming and aspiring for more.

The Power of Moments

I’ll Push You

I recently heard 40 somethings Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray share their story about a great adventure to traverse the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through Spain. This story is captured in the recent documentary, I’ll Push You. Justin and Patrick have been best friends their whole lives: they grew up together, when to school together and were best man in each other’s weddings. Starting in high school, Justin was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that eventually required him to use a wheelchair. Patrick and Justin were committed to neither let Justin’s deteriorating health negatively impact their friendship nor limit their dreams.

So when Justin heard about the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through Spain, he wondered aloud to Patrick whether the two of them could ever do it. Patrick’s immediate response was: “I’ll push you.” The movie is a powerful story of their journey and is full of peaks and pits. (It should be noted that the Camino de Santiago is a challenging trek for even the most fit athletes!)

The Best Memories are Just for the Young?

Justin and Patrick created a peak moment in mid-life. However, there is a prevailing belief that many of our best moments occur when we are young. In fact, people predict that most of our peak memorable events occur before the age of 30. In an era of increasing longevity where an increasing number of us will have at least 2/3rds of our lives ahead of us, our mindset needs to change.

We can do something about this. As Dan and Chip Heath highlight in their recent book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, there are things we can do to create more powerful moments at any age. Part of their recommendation is to be more intentional about seizing and creating such opportunities.

The Art of Creating More Powerful Moments

They see a defining moment as a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful. The Heath brothers outline four elements of creating such moments: elevation, pride, insight and connection (“EPIC”). Elevation indicates moments where we reach a new milestone or accomplishment. This can often involve something that boosts our sensory pleasures, introduces an element of competition (thereby raising the stakes) and breaks the script of what’s normal. Pride indicates situations where you are especially grateful of what you accomplished. Insights refer to situations where you learned something about yourself and can often happen during times of challenge or transition. Connection relates to times when an experience is shared with others.

The most powerful moments combine these elements. For Justin and Patrick, their experience included all of these dimensions: elevation in their accomplishment of traversing the mountains, pride in their ability to overcome an insurmountable challenge, insights in what they learned about themselves and connection in having this shared experience. With their documentary, they have allowed others to vicariously be inspired by their peak moment.

Creating Moments is One of Our Aspirations

At Smart Living 360, we see a big difference between residing in an apartment building and living in an engaged community. Particularly in an era of increased longevity, we see value in helping people of any age think about ways to add more memorable and meaningful experiences in their lives. This can come in a wide variety of forms. For some, we have witnessed special moments occur when a connection is made between new friends or when a resident seizes the opportunity to try something new. It’s particularly gratifying when residents take the initiative to create events or gatherings in the hopes of engaging others around a common interest and craft memories together.

We’ve also learned that empathy is particularly important in creating moments. A number of residents have downsized from larger homes which they have lived in for many years. This transition can be both exciting and terrifying. Helping smooth this transition in thoughtful ways, with the help of our Lifestyle Ambassador, can lead to very positive moments.

Scripting Your Own Moments: A Thanksgiving Example

Thanksgiving has always been one of our family’s favorite holidays. We took a step towards creating a special moment several years ago when we experimented with a kids vs. parents soccer game among families in our neighborhood. As the kids have grown and become more skilled, the games have become increasingly close and intense. In fact, this year the kids prevailed, surely a peak moment for them. However, we’re coming back stronger next year, and, as adults in our forties, will continue to make memories and hopefully bring back a win.

Man Sleeping

Sleep and 8 Hours Mike

8 Hours Mike

My college roommate and best friend, Mike, is an outlier in many ways. He’s a native Philadelphian who cares more about international politics than local sports teams, manages to be a decent athlete despite being excruciatingly slow at virtually everything he does (his nickname is “Mollasses”) and, in our college days, was perhaps the only person on campus religious about getting eight hours shut-eye every night. If you wanted someone to stay up late or get up especially early, Mike was the wrong guy to ask. He was insistent – and still is – on getting his eight hours of sleep whenever and wherever possible. He is “8 Hours Mike”.

Benefits of Sleep and Health Risks with Sleep Depravation

I doubt 8 Hours Mike was fully aware of the health benefits of sleep but it has probably played no small part in his success in college and in life.  Dr. Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist and Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, expounds on the critical importance of sleep across the age spectrum in his book released earlier this month, Why We Sleep. Dr. Walker claims, based on dozens of research studies, that sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day. Sleep helps cement positive memories and mollifies painful ones, and melds past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity.

Conversely, insufficient sleep causes havoc. Insufficient sleep – routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night – demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer, and also increasing odds of diabetes, heart disease and dementia, among other effects. Too little sleep also makes it more difficult to manage stress and anxiety. It’s no exaggeration to say that not enough sleep can kill you. In fact, more vehicle accidents are caused by drowsy driving than alcohol and drugs combined. This is because, as studies confirm, people awake for nineteen hours or more are at least as cognitively impaired as those who are legally drunk.

Don't Drive Tired

Basics of Sleep

Recent advances in neuroscience have helped us learn more about the nature of sleep. Sleep comes in two forms: Non-REM sleep and REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is more important for restoration and cementing memories; meanwhile, REM sleep allows for dreaming which helps spark creativity.

In addition, our sleep is influenced by two, independent biological elements: circadian rhythm and melatonin. The circadian rhythm is effectively a personal 24-hour clock that signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up or go to sleep. About 40% of people have a circadian rhythm that creates “morning types”, another 30% are “evening types” and the remaining percent fall somewhere in between. The release of melatonin helps spark drowsiness – based on “sleep pressure” and is based primarily on how long one has been awake.

Sleep Across the Age Spectrum

As we age, the type of sleep changes but achieving a full night’s sleep is just as important. In midlife and beyond, we witness a reduction in quantity and quality, sleep efficiency and disrupted timing of sleep. By age 70, we have lost about 80% to 90% of the deep sleep we enjoyed as a teenager. Further, our sleep efficiency – or the amount of bed time to actual sleep time – falls from 95% to between 70% to 80%. Therefore, in order to achieve 8 hours sleep, we need 10 or more hours of bed time. In addition, there is a change in our circadian rhythm as we age so we tend to tire earlier, leading to earlier and earlier bedtimes. Hence, the “early bird” dinner special.

Managing these changes as we age is critical. The lower an older individual’s sleep efficiency score, the higher the mortality risk, the worse their physical health, the more likely they are to suffer from depression, the less energy they report, and the lower their cognitive function, typified by forgetfulness. In some cases, forgetfulness may be more linked to poor sleep than a specific mental condition.

Best Practices and Impact of Living Environment

The National Sleep Foundation and NIH, among other groups, provide some guidance on best sleeping practices. Some of the common ideas include:

(a) Minimize electrical light, esp. blue light from LEDs found in many electronic devices, particularly within an hour before bed time.
(b) Regularize temperature – ideally in the mid-60s – to make it easier to fall and stay asleep
(c) Minimize caffeine, esp. in the afternoon and evening, as this can throw off the timing of your melatonin release
(d) Minimize alcohol, esp. in the afternoon and evening, as it negatively impacts the quality of sleep
(e) Create flexibility on your work schedule, if possible, to better align with your circadian rhythm

At Smart Living 360, one of our central goals is to enhance personal well-being. Your living environment can be customized to optimize your sleeping, including some of the suggestions above, and, with advanced technologies, your sleep can be easily be analyzed and measured to make sure you are getting the slumber you need. Small changes can be significant and nudge you to better health, literally adding years to your life so can you take full advantage of the Longevity Bonus.

A Need for More 8 Hours Mikes

A century ago, less than 2 percent of the population in the US slept six hours or less a night. Now, almost 30% of American adults do. We could help our individual health and our society at large if, like 8 Hours Mike, we were more insistent about getting our eight hours of sleep each and every night.

Why Community Matters

Not All Social Connection is Created Equal

With the recent ten year anniversary of the Apple iPhone, it is remarkable how pervasive smartphones have become. 77% of people in the US own a smartphone, double the percentage from just five years ago. With each new model, these devices are getting faster and more powerful, and more addictive. Critics have highlighted the downsides of smartphones, including its impact on youth. One thing is clear: social media is not the same as face-to-face connection.

Beginning of #EatTogether: Everyone Fixated on Phones

Last year, a Canadian supermarket chain, Loblaws, released a video – #EatTogether – to capture the differences between technology and face-to-face connection. The two minute video captures the isolation of people tethered to their smartphones and devices and flips the script with these same people connecting over a spontaneous meal in the hallway of their apartment building. There is something powerful and natural about sharing a meal with others.

Ending of #EatTogether: People Come Together to Share a Meal

Importance of Face-to-Face Connection

Face-to-face personal connection matters a lot. Research shows that social isolation is worse than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. About 1/3 of us suffer from loneliness. In some ways, women are particularly at risk for loneliness, in part, because women are more likely to be affected by their friends’ feelings of loneliness, as feelings spread more easily within their social networks. Others point out that the biggest threat facing middle aged men is loneliness.

Moreover, trends are broadly discouraging. More people, especially older adults, are living alone – currently ¼ of men and ½ of women 75 years of age or older live alone – and living alone is the most positive predictor of loneliness. In addition, while social media has increased the number of people we communicate with, the number of close friends has decreased from three in 1985 to less than two today.

On the flip side, strong personal connection and sense of community can add up to fifteen years to one’s lifespan. Researchers have found that people with active social lives recover faster after an illness than those who are solitary – MRIs show greater tissue repair. Further, research indicates that people who have had a stroke are better protected from grave complications by a tight, supportive social network than they are by medication.

How We Live and Where We Live Matters

The lifestyle we choose – including where we live – can have a big impact on our sense of community and overall well-being.

There are a number of things we can do. We can work harder to maintain our important friendships, through regular get togethers, reunions, etc. We can also be proactive about making new friends. This can mean joining local civic organizations, book clubs, exercise groups and so on.

We can also choose to live in places that positively impact our sense of community. Walkable neighborhoods and parks (see Smart Growth America for good examples) can help bring people together more often. Conversely, isolated suburban homes where few people know their neighbors is not a recipe for success.

Bethesda Row, Bethesda, MD: An Example of Walkable Mixed-Use Development

Developing a Sense of Community at Smart Living 360

Creating a sense of community is core to the Smart Living 360 philosophy and approach. In fact, connection is one of our three core attributes. We don’t require people to get to know their neighbors but we make it easy. We let prospective residents know that community building is part of our DNA. We have designed common spaces to facilitate small and large gatherings, including a catering kitchen suitable for potlucks and catered meals. Our Lifestyle Ambassador is a key facilitator to bring people together on a regular basis and helps make connection among people in the community.

Exciting things happen when a building becomes a community. People show interest in others’ and learning their personal stories. People start helping each other and invite others to become more involved in their lives. It can become contagious, getting more and more people desiring to be part of the community’s social fabric.

At The Stories, a Smart Living 360 community, residents help tutor French to kids within the community, participate in regular resident-driven get-togethers and celebrate each others’ successes. For example, a long time dream of one resident was to become a policeman. When he was commissioned to the Montgomery County police force last year, residents celebrated around the BBQ to share in his achievement.

Time to Make a Video a Reality

The Eating Together video is compelling. But it’s fiction. Loblaws is trying to change that with the first national Eat Together Day. This is a good start, but we can do ourselves a favor and make eating together a far more regular exercise. Odds are it would help us all live longer, healthier lives.