Happiness Curve

The Little Known Happiness Curve

The U-Shaped Happiness Curve

I am a long time subscriber of The Economist magazine. I have never come close to reading the magazine cover to cover but, invariably, there’s something that I read that surprises me and makes me wonder why I didn’t know about it sooner. Such was the case in 2010 when it ran an article entitled “The U Bend of life: Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older.” The article made a strong case for the fact that people after mid-life get happier over time and often reach a point where their happiness, or self-reported life satisfaction, exceeds all other periods of their life, including their youth.

Journalist Jonathan Rauch tackles this subject in his excellent book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. Substantial research has been conducted on U-shaped happiness in the nearly decade since The Economist article and Rauch does a superb job of summarizing it. In short, based on research from economists to psychologists to neurologists and others, the U-shaped happiness curve is real. It is observed across many cultures and countries and persists even after screening for income, gender, education, employment, marriage and health, among others.

The Economist was one of the first mainstream publications to highlight an important fact that few of us know: we are wired to be somewhat dissatisfied with our lives at mid-life but also to be happier afterwards. This fact even fools our intuition along the way to deepen the disappointments and heighten later surprises.

Exhibit A: Global Average Life Satisfaction by Age

Source: The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch

Not Midlife Crisis so Much as a Midlife Malaise

Rauch is quick to point out that the U-shaped happiness curve is a tendency, not a path that all follow. A precious few may experience a general upward trajectory or consistent high level of life satisfaction over their life. Others, sadly, may be persistently in a low state of life satisfaction or experience a general downward trend over their life. Nonetheless, most of us are likely to experience a curve that follow the U-shaped trajectory, which includes a mid-life dip.

The notion of a midlife “crisis” was first introduced in the mid-60s and, of course, is now a common reference in our popular culture. However, when the psychoanalyst, Eliott Jacques, introduced the concept, it was before the research we have available today. The reality is that many of us face a dip, or malaise, but very few of us have a true crisis.

Researchers, including economist Hannes Schwandt of Germany, explain this dip as a mismatch of our expectations and reality.  When we are younger, we expect our life satisfaction to be higher than we ultimately experience. This is often true for those that achieve many of their early life goals – people are expecting greater satisfaction at the top of the mountain than they receive – as well as the group that falls short. Part of this is explained by what economists call the hedonic treadmill, the idea that each new achievement just begets a new target with no lasting satisfaction achieved in reaching a given goal.

Exhibit B: Current and Expected Life Satisfaction by Age

Source: The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch

Surprised by Joy Beyond Midlife

On the flip side, we expect our life satisfaction beyond midlife to decrease and we are joyfully surprised that it often goes up. Researchers have a number of theories for this. Dr. Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center of Longevity and frequent reference in SmartLiving 360 blogs, is a world expert in this domain. Dr. Carstensen’s research indicates that people who are past midlife often have lower stress, improved emotional regulation, less regret and a general sense of positivity and content for their lives.

Indeed, these themes are echoed by one of the most popular articles in the New York Times for the month of January: “The Joy of Being a Woman in her 70s”. The author, a clinical psychologist, highlights the benefits of aging, including the increasing life satisfaction she and her peer group are experiencing. These sentiments are echoed by many of the 600 reader comments.

This sense of greater joy and life satisfaction beyond midlife, as a general tendency, shows up in the mounds of research and many personal stories.

Role of Place and the Happiness Curve

Another surprising insight from the latest research of the happiness curve is the influence of place. For example, some countries are happier than others. For example, the average United States citizen is far happier than his Russian counterpart. However, happier countries also have a better happiness curve. For happier countries, the midlife happens earlier and increase in life satisfaction following the turning point is steeper. This is revealed in comparing the curves of the United States and Russia. Sadly, in the case of Russia, the average person does not live long enough to make it beyond the midlife trough.

Exhibit C: Comparison of Life Satisfaction over Time for United States vs. Russia

Source: The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch via Gallup World Poll and Brookings

What to Do About It

If you are approaching or in midlife, there are some things you can do according to Rauch. First, if you have a feeling of malaise, recognize that this is normal. Second, don’t be afraid to share that feeling with peers. Odds are, they are probably going through a similar feeling, even if the magnitude and timing is different. Third, it is helpful to connect with those that are older than you as they might have already experienced the curve.

Perhaps, the most effective strategy is simply to wait. In this case, the research strongly suggest that circumstances will change with time.

If you are beyond midlife, embrace the stage. Don’t fear it or run from it. Identify ways to amplify the alignment of your time and actions with your values. Opportunities for finding greater purpose are ample.

Where You Live Matters

As implied above with the US and Russia comparison, place matters. Whether in midlife or beyond, look for environments that help you thrive. In either stage, social connection is critical. Be thoughtful to make sure you are the right place in your time.

Don’t Miss the Good News: An Opportunity for Even Longer Life Satisfaction

As longevity increases, one of the exciting opportunities is that these extra years may be added to a stage where life satisfaction is already high. It is for this reason, especially if we are healthy and have planned appropriately, that longevity can be a very good thing for us individually and collectively, especially if more of us focus on the greater good.

But it starts with a change of mindset and a willingness to embrace the joy.

My mother claimed she was 38 years old for fifteen years. She didn’t want to face midlife. Now in her 70s, her attitude towards age has changed, even if slightly. She is thriving and is inspired by people successfully aging decades older.

I hope more of us can see the positive side of aging for stages 50 and beyond. The U-shaped happiness curve suggests we will be happier regardless.

Are you prepared to live to 100?

Are You Prepared to Live to 100?

When Living to 100 is Not Uncommon

As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” However, it’s not too challenging to see that many of us will be living longer, often much longer, than previous generations. Remarkably, researchers predict than the first person to live to 150 is alive today. Event Yogi is example of increasingly longevity: he lived to 90 years of age.

We’re on the brink of where living to 100 will not be uncommon. In fact, demographers predict that a child born in the developed world today has a greater than 50% chance of living to be over 100. It’s not just about young people, however. If you’re 65 and healthy, odds are you will live to at least 90 years.

How Do You Plan to Live to 100? Start with Realistic Expectations

How do you plan to live to 100? Carefully (but be flexible!).

We need to be honest with our particular circumstances and range of possible outcomes.  For those nearing traditional retirement age, be realistic about how long you may live and focus on lifestyles that work financially and make you happy overall. For those in mid-life, there will most likely be changes in your job or career and related fluctuations in income. At the same time, it’s good to make an effort to stay in touch with friends while also reaching out to new ones. For those earlier in life, gain an appreciation for the change that will occur over your lifetime and be open to navigating these changes successfully.

In every case, we’re all trailblazers for a new era.

Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott recently tackled this subject in their award winning book The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in the Age of Longevity.  With Ms. Gratton’s background as a psychologist and Mr. Scott’s as an economist, the authors – both professors at the London Business School – provide a blended perspective of how to prepare for such a long life. They conclude that how people approach life will change profoundly.

An End to the Three Stage Life 

The traditional stages of life – education, employment and retirement – will end. Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has long advocated for reimagining this standard life course as she describes in the video The Big Idea in Four Minutes. She posits that there is an opportunity to work less during the child rearing years and to work more later thereby pushing out the traditional retirement stage. Ms. Gratton and Mr. Scott see the same thing: life will become multi-staged and transitions will become the norm. Visionaries like Marc Freedman and his colleagues at Encore.org are helping create a stage after one’s work career but before retirement which they call the “encore career.” Encore.org encourages people to use their gifts and experience to help society at large, increasingly in an intergenerational context.

The Role of Work and Financial Planning

The nature of work will change. With technology disruption around the corner, such as with artificial intelligence, machine learning and other advances, people will need to evolve to make sure that their skills fit with the needs of the workplace. Job changes are already changing at an accelerated path: LinkedIn found that Millennials have switched jobs at twice the rate of GenX.

One of the likely outcomes is that more people will work beyond traditional retirement age. Signs indicate that this is already happening (see graph below). Given pressures on pensions and social security, it is unlikely that government will be able to provide the same benefits prior generations received, particularly in the context of longer lives. More of the responsibility will fall on individuals to navigate financial security in this new era. Indeed, the power of compounding returns – applied to the spread between income and expenses – becomes even more significant over the course of a long life.

Percentage of People Working for US and UK 64 years and over
Source: The 100 Year Life

Note the Impact of Compounding Returns for Many Aspects of Life

While getting finances squared away is critical, there is much more to succeed in long life planning than having a proper nest egg.  A key part of the equation is having properly invested in other elements of life. Are you able to have a clear purpose at each stage of life? Do you have relationships to support you in your journey? Are you actively caring for your health? Much like compounding investment returns, good habits in these areas can ultimately have an outsized impact in your overall well-being.

Valuing the Importance of Place

The role of place – or “Power of Place” as outlined in a SmartLiving 360 blog from last year – is an important element, too. The right living situation can strengthen our social connections and reduce the risk of social isolation and loneliness. There is simply no equal to regular, face-to-face interaction with people who know and care for you; and certain neighborhoods, for example, are conducive to creating such relationships.

Further, the right housing can keep us healthy. For example, about 1/3 of older adults fall each year leading to over 700,000 hospital visits. Most of these falls occur within homes which is not surprising given that less than 5% of all housing stock is designed with features accommodating people of moderate mobility difficulties. Fortunately, new, attractive housing options designed for people of all ages are emerging.

What’s My Next Step? 

Where do you go from here? For some, talking to your financial planner is a good next step to make sure the key assumptions driving your plan are conservative and account for the odds of increasing longevity. There are several free online financial tools that can assist in this, too.

But the opportunity is broader. Ms. Gratton and Mr. Scott have created a website to accompany their book: www.100yearlife.com. This website includes a diagnostic tool to help evaluate your readiness across several dimensions, including those that are tangible, such as your finances, and those that are intangible, such as the strength of your friendships. Designing Your Life, a NY Times best-selling book by a couple of Stanford professors, is also a useful guide and was the subject of a SmartLiving 360 blog (“Design Thinking for Your Life”).

I would expect more and better tools to emerge in the future to help properly plan and execute on these plans in the context of an increasingly long life.

A Mindset to Thrive, Not Just Survive

The most important step is to have a mindset to see these extra years as a gift – in the form of thousands of days as compared to prior generations – and one worth planning for and embracing. While we learn to seize this opportunity, we should also an effort to educate the next generation as this trend will impact them even more.

The Peloton Effect

We All Know Exercise is Important but That’s Often Not Enough

At least since our awkward middle school PE classes, the importance of physical exercise has been hammered into us. We know that exercise helps keep us fit by burning calories, building muscle and raising our metabolism. In addition, we’re learning of its positive impact of our brain health. Recent studies have pointed to the impact of exercise – even short, low intense workouts – on improving memory. At a Lake Nona Impact Forum, an annual convening of global health leaders and innovators, three prior US Surgeon Generals summarized their advice for aging well in one word: move.

Unfortunately, knowing that physical exercise is important is often not enough. We need established routines that work for us given our interest levels, abilities and limitations. In other words, we’re most successful when we create a custom training program that can evolve with us.

World Class Athletes Not Required

Exercise should not strictly be the domain of people who call themselves “athletes.” It’s important that all of us see exercise as attainable and desirable. That’s not to stay that there aren’t challenges getting involved for those who have not historically been active but there are many onramps and stories for inspiration.

Take Madonna Buder, perhaps better known as the “Iron Nun”. A Roman Catholic religious sister, she decided to try triathlons in mid-life in an effort to help sharpen her mind, body and spirit. She completed her first triathlon at 52, Ironman at 55 and has subsequently completed over 40 Ironman races. Now 88, she holds the Ironman record in the 80+ age category and is the subject of a Nike ad.

Exercise is an opportunity for anyone at any age.

We’re More Likely to Do It if We Have a Human Connection

Exercising with others can help. We’re simply more likely to exercise if we have others that hold us accountable. Or, it can be a convenient excuse to spend time with those we enjoy. In fact, recent studies indicated that sports that are inherently collaborative – such as tennis – as compared to others that tend to be more individualistic – such as running – can lead to greater gains in longevity.

Getting connected to others to exercise has never been easier. Word of mouth and access to friends of friends can uncover opportunities. Online tools like Facebook and MeetUp can help find like-minded people close by. Of course, joining a local gym and working with a trainer is an option; you can get the benefit of a human connection with an expertise to help set up a routine appropriate for you. Exercise classes can be a successful route, too. Curves can be a great option for women and is available in many places across the U.S. with over 10,000 locations.

Building a sense of community through exercise is 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. She states “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.” These connections are keeping people coming back.

New Models Emerging: The Peloton Bike and Innovative Home Fitness Systems

Making it to the gym can be a challenge. A high-quality gym-like experience at home is becoming an interest to many people. That’s one of the reasons why innovative home fitness systems are growing in popularity.

With over one million subscribers, Peloton has garnered lots of attention. Peloton is a well-capitalized exercise and media company that has blended intense workouts, initially cycling, with fitness tracking and access to world-class instructors. Some classes are live streamed from their NYC cycling studios while hundreds are available on-demand. Instructors for the live classes can see usernames of participants and often make specific shout outs to those participating virtually as a way to help everyone feel like they are part of one, larger community and experience.

Peleton Bike

People love it. Some claim they are addicted, often cycling at least twice a day. Peloton’s success has spawned a slew of other home fitness solutions, such as Mirror (personal training, yoga), Crew (rowing) and Tonal (weight lifting), that promise to be far more engaging than the NordicTrack from the ‘80s.

Combining Exercise with Doing Good – Back On My Feet

There are also opportunities of combining exercise with doing good. Of course, there are many examples of running fundraisers – I have a friend who is a proud repeat winner for his age group of the Helen L. Diller Vacation Home for Blind Children Turkey Trot in Avalon, NJ – but there are also opportunities to do much more. For example, there’s a not-for-profit called Back On My Feet that helps homeless people in about a dozen cities. This program combats homelessness through the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources. A key part of the program is a commitment by volunteers to run with homeless individuals three mornings a week at 5:30am. It requires a commitment for all involved, but the program has been enormously successful. It is hard to not show up when someone’s life is on the line.

What’s Your First Step?

If you have an exercise routine that works for you, keep at it. However, if you don’t, make 2019 the year to figure it out. Our awareness of the importance of exercise on our bodies and minds has never been greater and the options, particularly with MeetUp groups, running clubs and home fitness systems, continues to grow.

The key is to take that first step. What’s will be yours?

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.