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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop

My uncle Russ, or “Cool Uncle Russ” as I called him when I was a youngster, has always been a favorite of mine. In the ‘80s, he wore cool sunglasses, leather jackets and listened to top 40 hits. And even though he and my aunt Donna do not have kids, he’s a professional at dad jokes, ones like “Why do melons have weddings? Because they cantaloupe!”. Younger people seem to enjoy the puns the most, though it can be a painful laugh at any age.

Uncle Russ called a few years ago as he and my aunt were considering relocating to Pennsylvania to move into a retirement community. They were seeking advice. They wanted a living situation that could be flexible as their health needs changed while also ensuring that they live within their means. They moved into a Life Plan community outside of Pittsburgh.

It has worked well. They have a house within the community and friends, and they are involved in activities. They have peace of mind financially and also from a health care perspective.

However, something was missing for Russ. Where were all the younger people?

He decided to go back into the workforce and get a job. He was in his mid-70s at the time. The only problem was that, despite his experience with engineering firms and doing project management, no company would return his emails or phone calls. Firms were hiring but he couldn’t even get an interview. It was nearly a year of fruitless searching. It was his most direct encounter with ageism in the workplace.

He was seeking a job more as an opportunity for greater purpose and to socialize with people of different ages than for a paycheck. What if he dialed back on the pay?

He took a different tact. He saw an ad and sought to return to one of his first jobs: working at the deli counter. He applied, was accepted and started the next day.

Russ has been working at the local deli shop within Bi-Lo Foods of Harmony, Pennsylvania for several years now. He works the early shift from 6:30am to 1:30pm – 7 hours – and is on his feet the entire time. He turns 80 next year.

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop
Russ flanked by his female co-workers (no ponytail hat this time!)

One of his greatest enjoyments is interacting with his clients and co-workers. He knows many customers by name and remembers their meat and cheese preferences. He also knows their hot buttons – he’s always looking for playful ways to make fun or to trigger a laugh. In the words of his manager, Russ has a “joke for everything.”

He’s befriended his younger co-workers. Some of them are over 60 years younger. He understands the challenges facing younger people, including struggles with social media and loneliness. He’s been able to share his sense of humor and he’s played a number of practical jokes on his colleagues. One time, in order to fit in with the ladies on the team, he wore a hat with a built-in pony tail…

He also brings a strong work ethic. He wakes up before 5am, makes the 5 minute drive and is at the store at 5:40 – nearly an hour before his shift starts – to check the inventory and make sure that everything is set up properly for the day. He’s never called in sick or missed a day. This is how he was taught to work. It’s a different approach as compared to some of his millennial colleagues. He serves as a role model to his younger co-workers.

Understandably, his boss appreciates Russ’ contributions, thoughtfulness and the joy he brings to the team. She is open to Russ working as long as he would like. There’s no end in sight so long as his health cooperates.

Initially, Russ was reticent to share about his job at the deli. It took a year or so before the broader family learned about it. He eventually told his friends at his retirement community, too. Maybe it was not perceived as “cool”. We all admire Russ’ courage to put himself out there and persevere to find something that he values and that values him. Some of his fellow residents at the retirement community are curious if there are job openings.

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop
Be prepared to get a joke with your salami order

As a society, we’re struggling with having enough social interactions; those that are deep and those that are superficial. They both offer benefits. Russ and his colleagues have become closer friends over time and their joyful interaction with customers provide a well-being boost for all involved. Moreover, for Russ, it’s been an opportunity to tap into an intergenerational environment that would have never been possible within his retirement community.

Next year, there will be a celebration at the Bi-Lo deli counter that will be certain to attract people of all ages. It will be for a certain worker’s 80th birthday. But watch out for the puns. They’ll be coming and, in my experience, it will be hard not to laugh.

When Third Place is Very Best Place to Be, Live & Thrive

On a recent visit to see my best friend in Philadelphia, we visited Grays Ferry Avenue Triangle. It’s a triangle plaza in the Southwest Center City area that didn’t exist a decade ago. Previously, it was home to a handful of parking spots, a historic but inoperative water fountain and an oddly configured side street of little use.

Local residents, including the husband-wife team of Brad Dakake and Chau Winn, came together and formulated a new vision: the creation of a community gathering spot closed to traffic and decorated with planters, painted asphalt, café tables and a bike-sharing station. The vision even includes a working water fountain. Today, the venue hosts an annual neighborhood festival called Palazapoolza, sponsored by over a dozen local business and includes activities for all ages, including live music, face painting and kids’ carnival games, and food and drinks.

The “Triangle” in Southwest Center City that transformed an underused space to a valued neighborhood amenity

The “Triangle” is an example of a “third place.” Third places are physical spaces that allow for connection beyond home (first place) and work (second place). Examples of third places include grocery stores, community parks, libraries, restaurants, entertainment venues and places of worship.

Residents love the Triangle and feel its impact.  In the words of Dave Zega, chairman of the local community planning organization, South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA):

“Plazapoola brings together local residents and businesses to activate and celebrate public space. Public spaces capitalize on community assets and promote engagement, happiness and well-being. Each year, Plazapalooza allows residents of all ages to come together and enjoy the SOSNA Triangle.”

It turns out that residents living near the Triangle are not the only people who see the benefit of third places. According to a new study by the American Enterprise Institute, Americans who live close to third places are more content with their neighborhood, more trusting of others, and less lonely regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs or small towns.

In other words, place matters. Jane Jacobs, the celebrated urbanist and author who would celebrate her 102nd birthday this month, outlined her vision for the role and importance of creating walkable, mixed-use communities in her 1961 urban planning treatise, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. She believed such communities naturally created social cohesion and neighborliness. 

In recent years, there has been explosion of mixed-use development. Dense, walkable developments are common within urban environments, of course, but are now increasingly common in the suburbs (including “sub-urbs” as some call them – connoting urban density in a suburb) and in some rural areas.

Unfortunately, creating mixed-use places, including third places, is not enough. There needs to be activation and engagement in these spaces. This happened to a high degree with the Triangle as residents literally created the space and formed a committee for its ongoing use and improvement. This is rare. In Baltimore, where I live, there has been significant development on the east side. Eager Park, a five-acre open space created a couple of years ago and developed in part by Johns Hopkins University, is beautiful but has not generated a meaningful sense of community yet. There’s more work to be done.

Creating buildings and spaces is the easy part. Creating communities is the hard part.

We’ve seen this, too. In our intergenerational apartment building, The Stories at Congressional Plaza, there are third places within the building as well as within Congressional Plaza. The building amenities include a state-of-the-art fitness room, kitchen and coffee area and great room. Congressional Plaza, located within a five-minute walk, includes a grocery store, restaurants and other retail. Collectively, these are great amenities.

These spaces are not nice but they don’t become activated on their own.

Keep Calm and Craft On
Resident led event at The Stories

We have found the difference is when residents take ownership and agency in the utilization of these spaces. Game night. Potlucks. Knitting club. Residents get to know one another and are more likely to spread the word. We just help behind the scenes, including helping create flyers.

Engagement with third spaces is helpful at all stages of life, but they may be more important as we age as the second place (work) becomes less important or consistent. It can help avoid social isolation and loneliness, growing challenges for our society but especially as we get older. It’s important to note that third places need not be walkable but they should be accessible. A short drive of 15 minutes or less can make a huge difference.

What are your third places? Do you frequent them enough? Are they close enough?

Better yet, do you see an opportunity to create your own “Triangle”? It might just be the best thing you could do for your long term health and well-being. 

Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

An Antidote to Social Isolation and Loneliness

In recent years, much has been written about the increase in social isolation and loneliness. While, historically, social isolation and loneliness have been most strongly associated with older adults, recent studies indicate the loneliest generation may be Generation Z, the oldest of whom are in college. Loneliness, it seems, is age agnostic. Research indicates nearly half of Americans are sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.

Much less has been written about what has caused it and what can be done about it. David Brooks, best-selling author and long-time New York Times columnist, offers both theories and solutions in his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

In short, Brooks believes our society has shifted too much toward individualism over commitments to one another. He describes it as a shift from the “We’re All In This Together” moral ecology of the post-war years to the “I’m Free to Be Myself” mentality. The pressures of social conformity of the 1950s had huge drawbacks, not the least of which was limited acceptance and rights of women, minorities and LGBTQ groups. However, a shift to hyperindividualism has lead to a society where people live further and further part from one another – socially, emotionally and physically.

Brooks antidote is a rebellion against the rebellion of the ’50s. He argues that each of us needs to make a commitment to those around us. In so doing, we can reinstitute the social bonds of prior times with a more accepting view of those who are different than us. If enough of us do this at an individual level, the argument goes, this will become a seachange for our broader society that creates new norms.

Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

Brooks argues that while happiness is good, joy is better. The first mountain, in his view, is about satisfying the ego and achieving worldly success. The second mountain is about a shift in thinking to others and is inherently relational. Summiting the second mountain creates a legacy and an enduring purpose.

The Age of Longevity creates opportunities for us to summit multiple mountains.

One of the questions is whether you wish to challenge the traditional three stage life model:  grow up – work – retire. This is the first mountain mindset. One of the problems with this model can be finding sustained purpose, particularly in the retirement phase. We know purpose is key to long-term health and well-being: Having purpose has been linked to a number of positive outcomes, including better sleep, fewer strokes and heart attacks, and a lower risk of dementia, disability and premature death.

Bethesda Row, Bethesda, Maryland: An example of a walkable mixed-use development that naturally brings people together

The Importance of Place in Ascending the Second Mountain

If you choose to challenge this existing three-stage life model, one of the next questions becomes are you in the right place to climb the second mountain? We are all impacted by the prevailing culture around us. Are you around others who are climbing their second mountain who can help and encourage you? In the case of David Brooks, when he decided to climb the second mountain, he realized he needed to broaden his circle of friends that shared this interest and he was fortunate to be able to find them in his existing metropolitan area.

Physical space matters, too. Do you reside in a home that is too far removed from connecting with others? Are you in a place that naturally brings you in contact with others? We have seen the benefit of creating spaces that make it easier to connect people, including across ages.

Tips on Creating Community

Brooks concludes his book with a series of recommendations to help build community. These steps include:

  1. Make a Commitment. Building a community, like a relationship, is a slow, complex process and requires that you are present and engaged.
  2. See Neighborhood as the Unit of Change. Building community involves seeing the neighborhood, not the individual, as the essential unit of change. Here, a swimming pool metaphor fits: You can’t clean only the part of the pool you are swimming in.
  3. Convene. People need to get together regularly to get to know one another. Potlucks, front porch gatherings, block parties and weekly gatherings over meals are good examples.
A Weekly Meal organized by All Our Kids, a D.C. Based Organization (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

A Transformative Decision

Baseball Instruction

What Will Be Your Legacy?

You Don’t Write Your Legacy

Legacy happens whether we want it or not: those who come after us will do the writing; the best we can do is provide the raw material for what that story will be. That’s what is so distressing about the recent college admissions bribery scandal: more than 750 families are implicated in a vast overreach to craft a false narrative and legacy of academic success.  I actually worked for one of those charged, so this story really hits home. But it gets me thinking about what really drives us to be the best version of ourselves. In this sense, purpose serves as a precursor to our desired legacy. How we purposefully spend our time, treasure and talent – and its cumulative effect –forms our legacy.

College Scam
William Rick Signer and the College Admissions Bribery Scandal: He will not be writing his desired legacy

Are you using your time, talents and treasures in a way that is consistent with the outcome you desire? If not, how can this be changed?

Planning a Legacy is a Relatively New Invention

The Age of Longevity allows us to plan in a way our forefathers could not. Frankly, for generations before us, success was simply furthering the human race. Now, many of us have the privilege to find the intersection of our talents and opportunities to make a living and an impact.  It is the cumulative impact of our decisions that help create our legacies. Purpose drives it. 

Common Areas of Legacy

The domains of legacy are boundless, but family is often cited. This helps explain the investment parents and grandparents make in their progeny. Barry, one of our close family friends, has been the baseball coach of his grandson’s teams from t-ball through preteen years. This investment has rewarded them with an especially close relationship. 

For others, it may be youth in general. Harvard’s Robert Putnam wrote Our Kids as an opportunity and need for more people to see their kids as their bloodline but also those in the greater community. Marc Freedman of Encore.org has answered this call with the launch of Gen2Gen and his new book, How to Live Forever, a book about creating legacy through enriching younger generations.

Creating Legacy is Open to All Ages

While legacy may be discussed more often among older people, focus on creating a legacy is independent of age. I have seen this first-hand getting to know some of my peers as part of the Encore Public Voices Fellowship:

  • Joy Zhang, a Millennial, is passionate about intergenerational relationships and is currently helping to facilitate such connections around caregiving through her start up Mon Ami
  • Karen Lincoln, a GenXer, is on track to create a legacy about elevating our awareness about the high incidences of dementia among the African American community and harnessing resources to combat it
  • Mick Smyer, a baby boomer, has founded Graying Green, an effort to improve our environment by inspiring specific actions by people to help show they can make a difference

Role of Purpose in Health and Extended Longevity

It turns out having an articulated purpose greater than yourself is linked to a number of positive health outcomes and holds true for people across the lifespan. 

“Having purpose is linked to a number of positive outcomes, including better sleep, fewer strokes and heart attacks, and a lower risk of dementia, disability and premature death,” notes Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a physician and researcher at the Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research.

Purpose can be elusive for older adults, but the impact can be significant. Older adults with purpose are more likely to invest in preventative care, such as cholesterol tests and cancer screenings, keeping them healthy longer. All in all, lifestyle effects, including the role of purpose, adds six to seven years from age 65 and four years added survival at age 85.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates sees technology creating tools to help us craft meaningful lives

Tools Today and On The Horizon

Books abound on strategies to live a purposeful life. Even design thinking principles – in vogue in corporate innovation circles – are being applied to help make the most of life’s opportunities, as discussed in books like Designing Your Life (a previous SmartLiving 360 blog looked closer at the opportunity to design thinking for your life).

Associating with others who value purpose increases the odds you will prioritize purpose. In this sense, the power of place is significant. You can root yourself in places where purpose, including your type of purpose, is common.

Technology promises to help, too. Several years ago, AARP launched a set of ageless tools under the Life Reimagined brand to help people navigate the possibilities afforded with longer life, including harnessing purpose. Technology visionaries, like Bill Gates, see an emergence of technology tools in coming years to help us craft a meaningful life.

No matter your age, whether you’re a Millennial like Joy, a GenXer like Karen or Baby Boomer like Mick, finding a sense of purpose can help create a lasting legacy. And while none us us will write our legacy, there’s no harm in giving them some good stuff to work with. 

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.