Designing for Longevity

The Power of Nudge

For a host of reasons, many of us will live longer, in some cases much longer, lives than our ancestors. In many cases, it won’t just be longer lives, it will be healthier lives. Our DNA has a role in our longevity but our lifestyle – the set of decisions we make each and every day – has a more powerful impact. These choices include the friends we keep, the activities we engage in and the places we live. In other words, our choices have a direct impact on the shape and magnitude of what experts call our Longevity Bonus.

So how can we successfully design for longevity?

Behavioral economists have researched how and what habits or practices can help lead to better decisions. The allure is that a small change or impact at the individual level, if multiplied and scaled, can have a profound impact on society at large.

The most well known behavioral economists on “nudging” may be Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. In their best-selling book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, they define ‘nudge’ as a gentle, not mandated, cue, push or other means to encourage a desired behavior.


Our kids’ school has been experimenting with nudging. Last year, as part of a student project, they replaced existing trashcans with three containers across three categories with supportive pictures: landfill, recyclables and compostables. The hope is that this signage would prompt people to think about the impact of their decisions. Indeed, it has led to an increase in recycling at the school.

An Example: Nudging to Greater Physical Well-Being

Earlier this year, I attended the Lake Nona Impact Forum which included a panel of the four most recent surgeon generals. Their collective advice for physical well-being: move.  They advocate making sure that we make concerted efforts to move every day, multiple times a day.

I have been making a more intentional effort to be active in 2017 and I have been using the Oura ring to help. The Oura ring is like a fit bit for your finger and does a great job of measuring general activity and quality of sleep. It detects blood volume pulse, body temperature and general movement though sensors embedded in the ring. The Bluetooth integrated app uses an easy-to-understand graphical interface to display results on activity and sleep quality and offers specific feedback and, often for me, words of encouragement.

App Screenshot

App Screenshot 2

The Oura ring has provided helpful nudges to help me stay moving. It is part of a growing body of wearables that are making a difference in people’s health. In fact, there is some encouraging news about the role of apps along with follow up services to help manage chronic conditions and stay well.

Designing for Longevity at Smart Living 360

At our core at Smart Living 360, we design and operate innovative living environments to enhance well-being. In other words, we create “nudges” to help residents find greater purpose, social connection, physical well-being, financial well-being and engagement in their community.

In the physical domain, we create communal areas designed for supporting planned and spontaneous interactions. These activities may include resident-led reading groups and craft clubs, outside speakers, workshops and potluck dinners and socials in our catering kitchen and club room.  A state-of-the art fitness center makes it easy for residents to stay active, even when the conditions are not particularly accommodating outside. A conference room with infrastructure to support telehealth allows for technology and services to help people stay healthy.

In the apartment home, contemporary design with elements of modern living, such as gourmet kitchens with custom cabinetry, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, is coupled with universal design features, such as showers with benches, slip-resistant tiles and wider doorways, to accommodate the desires and needs for people of all ages. The ability to customize paint color, fixtures and technology options all add to the sense of creating home.

Nudging to better well-being also means creating a culture that engages and empowers people. With our Lifestyle Ambassador as the catalyst, we help connect people to each other – creating intergenerational relationships along the way, provide access to services on an a la carte basis and provide for greater simplicity in life, so residents can focus on what’s most important.

What Can We Do with this Longevity Bonus?

The Longevity Bonus is a gift of our modern times, but only if we pursue a lifestyle that nurtures this gift. Thankfully, tools to help us lead healthier lives are increasing, including in the realm of our living environments.

The next step is to make full use of these extra years of life. As we will explore in a future blog, the opportunity to live – what can be extra decades of life – can be an exciting but daunting task and requires as much creativity as it does careful planning.


An Era of Accelerating Change

Change All Around Us

Elon Musk may best embody the American Dream among today’s entrepreneurs. A native of South Africa, he has been a trailblazer in the fields of electronic payment (PayPal), solar power (SolarCity), space travel (SpaceX) and electric vehicles (Tesla). Most recently, he founded Neuralink, a neurotechnology company reported to be developing implantable brain–computer interfaces (BCIs). All this and he is only 45 years age. My bet is that he’s not done yet.

The prospect of consumer space travel, autonomous vehicles, and computer-aided brain function can make it feel like we are living in a world of science fiction. But, we are not. These advances are a direct outcome of an era of accelerating change.

Putting Progress in Perspective

It is easy to forget but for millennia not much changed generation to generation. People lived predictably brief and uneventful lives. Then, the Industrial Revolution brought change on a dramatic scale. For example, life expectancy at birth has increased more than twice as much in the last century as it did in the previous 200,000 years. Our global wealth has skyrocketed. The ability to innovate on top of exiting innovations – which is now possible with the reach of the Internet to gain free and instantaneous access to information worldwide – suggests that the steep trajectory of change will only continue.

 From Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg 

Predicting the Future Has Never Been More Difficult and The Recent Past May Not Be the Best Anchor

Our minds are wired to understand linear changes, not hockey stick changes. This is why logarithmic graphs – linear representation of non-linear phenomenon – were created. It becomes even more challenging when multiple non-linear changes occur at the same time. Advances in computing power, machine learning and the proliferation of small, interconnected devices are examples of today’s reality.

Even some of our sharpest minds are struggling to make sense of it. At the recent Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, Warren Buffett commented on the dramatically changing landscape of retail by saying, “I have no illusion that 10 years from now will look the same as today, and there will be a few things along the way that surprise us,” he said. “The world has evolved, and it’s going to keep evolving, but the speed is increasing.”

It’s Not All Rosy

As we have learned, dramatic changes – even if generally positive – create disruption and losers as well as winners. Some of the pitfalls can be predicted but many cannot. For example, our new era of connectivity has, ironically, created a greater sense of isolation and increased anxiety. Studies have found that active Facebook users can be lonely as compared to peers that are not as active on social media. Numerous articles and studies point to the dangers and increased risks of social isolation, including the recent Boston Globe article “The biggest Threat Facing Middle-Age Men isn’t Smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.

How and Where We Live Will Change, Too

Our living environments will increasingly change, too.  These various advances give us new tools to meet people’s needs in new and innovative ways. On demand services, such as Uber for transportation or Task Rabbit for handyman needs, can replace traditional methods. The adoption and ubiquity of the “Internet of Healthy Things” – connected devices that help track personal data for your well-being – can help people stay healthy. I have been using the Oura Ring – effectively a fitbit for your finger – and it has provided accurate and informative diagnosis of my activity and sleep patterns to help me manage my life. Telehealth is being increasingly used in non-institutional settings to keep people from needing to go to the hospital.

These advances will enhance existing residential environments; they will also help spawn new residential models. Specially designed co-living residential options are new and gathering momentum with a multitude of providers. At Smart Living 360, we have seen how the impact of clever design, a culture of personal connection and the ability to coordinate services can resonate with people of multiple generations. Over time, with continued advances, we expect intelligently designed intergenerational living to be the norm, not the exception.

Looking Ahead

Perhaps the only thing we can accurately predict about the future is that will be different than today. Our collective opportunity and challenge will be to use ongoing advances to positively impact the world and humanity. Elon Musk’s ambitious vision of what’s possible should serve as inspiration to us all.

The Future of Health

The Future of Health Care is Staying Healthy

The US currently spends over $3 trillion dollars (or 18% of its GDP) on health care. This is significantly higher than most other countries and is twice the per capita average of other developed countries. Further, partially driven by an aging population, health care is expected to reach 20% of GDP by 2025, representing nearly $5.5 trillion dollars. These are huge numbers.  While health care is a complicated and controversial subject, it is clear that we need to find ways to rein in spending.

The future of health care is staying healthy. This was a theme of the recent Lake Nona Impact Forum, an annual gathering that brings together the nation’s top CEOs, health care innovators and thought leaders. One health expert, Ezekiel Emanuel, concluded that our country is “over hospitaled”, estimating that over 1,000 hospitals, or approx. 20% of the nation’s supply, are destined to close with a shift away from services provided in institutions to those in the community. All agreed that changes ahead are profound.

Not a Triple but a Quadruple Aim -> Consumer Engagement

Back in 2010, the US health care administration introduced the goal of a “triple aim”: (i) improving quality of care, (ii) improving health of populations, and (iii) reducing the per capita cost. Today, some argue it should be a “quadruple aim” adding consumer engagement. We need to find ways for more people to be motivated to stay healthy so we can shift resources from managing sickness to staying healthy. This is a particularly important task for insurers as well as certain states, such as Maryland and Vermont, who have chosen to be accountable for their total health care spend.

Increasing Role of Technology and Personal Data

Just as it has for other parts of our lives, technology and personal data will play an increasing role in our health. These advances promise to improve outcomes and reduce cost. Telehealth is now a common feature among commercial insurance plans, including UnitedHealth and Kaiser, and consumers have appreciated its convenience and effectiveness. Originally of Jeopardy fame, IBM Watson has focused energies on health care and has partnered with various health care institutions to accelerate health research. Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot is a bet on the ability to learn from metadata of millions of people.

Powerful tools are increasingly available to consumers to help stay informed and healthy. Daniel Kraft, a speaker at this year’s Impact Forum, highlights what’s possible with smartphones, peripherals and specialized health apps (“There’s an App for That”). I wear an Oura ring that provides accurate insights on activity and sleep patterns, including periods of light, deep and REM sleep. Internet of health things devices, like the Oura ring, can connect to new data consumer platforms, like Curious, to allow people to share data and learn from others.

Housing as Platform for Improved Health

Particularly as we shift from managing sickness to staying healthy, housing, one of the social determinants of health, plays an increasingly significant role. Work at the Bipartisan Policy Center has highlighted the important interplay of housing and health and the need to promote best-in-class options.  Innovative seniors housing providers, such as Juniper Communities, have demonstrated the positive impact of new housing models, including reduced costs and increased health.

At Smart Living 360, enhancing personal well-being is paramount. This thinking influences location strategies, design sensibilities and community culture.  We target walkable mixed-use locations, typically with a grocer in close proximity. Our design integrates in-unit features that accommodate people of all ages and stages, and common spaces are laid out to optimize interaction and utility.  Fitness rooms include a range of equipment to meet a variety of needs and are technology forward. Community programming, facilitated by our Lifestyle Ambassador, is oriented to increasing purpose, personal connection and physical well-being. Our residents report that it makes a difference.

The Evolving Empowerment of You

There has never been a better time in history to live a long, healthy and productive life. As we progress forward, changes in health care delivery, technology and housing will further empower us to take advantage of our increased longevity.


Lessons from Blue Zones

Lifestyle is the Wonder Drug for Longevity

I recently spoke at an event hosted by the Capitol Hill Village entitled Designed for Longevity. One of my co-presenters was Harriett Jameson, a Landscape Designer at Michael Vergason Landscape Architects. She shared stories of her time studying the impact of environments and longevity in Sardinia, Italy, a place with a reputation for both extended lifespan and vigor of its centenarians. She chronicled stories of these elders riding bikes and chopping wood and even Teresa Melledu, age 85, who walks up seven flights of stairs daily.

Sometimes, we think our longevity is closely linked to that of our parents and ancestors. This is not so. Researchers tell us only about 10% of how long we live is dictated by genes. The other 90% is dictated by our lifestyle. In this sense, lifestyle is the wonder drug for longevity. Harriett witnessed this in Sardinia as she saw how landscape design, including walking paths, access to garden space and linkages to others in the community, influenced daily behaviors and routines and positively impacted health and well-being.

What are Blue Zones?

Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones (see TED talk “How to Live to be 100+” and book Blue Zones), identifies Blue Zones as areas where people are living to age 100 at rates up to 10 times greater than in the United States, areas where life expectancy is an extra dozen years or so.  Dan teamed up with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging to find geographic areas that stood out from others. In the end, they studied three areas: Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan and Loma Linda, California. Sardinia is remarkable in the way the society reveres its elders and models intergenerational activity. Okinawa stands out for its plant-based diet and portion control, sense of daily purpose and ability to maintain very close relationships with a cluster of friends for the duration of their lives. Loma Linda is noted for the importance of their faith (it’s a largely Seventh Day Adventist community), strong social network and connection to nature.

What can be Learned from Blue Zones?

The study of these Blue Zones has led to a number of observations that is informative to those living outside of these marked Blue Zones. Dan and his colleagues have narrowed the lifestyle commonalities across Blue Zones into nine areas, called the Power 9:

  1. Moderate, regular physical activity.
  2. Life purpose.
  3. Stress reduction.
  4. Moderate caloric intake.
  5. Plant-based diet.
  6. Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
  7. Engagement in spirituality or religion.
  8. Engagement in family life
  9. Engagement in social life.

Blue Zones Pyramid

Credit: Blue Zones

How Can These Lessons be Incorporated into the Design of Living Environments? 

Both Harriett and Dan speak to the importance of how one’s living environment can nudge someone towards better lifestyle decisions. For Harriett, subtle approaches in landscape design can make it easier for people to be active outside and connect with those around them. For Dan, he points out how certain features in a home can help promote better lifestyle habits.

At Smart Living 360, we feel the same way: designing spaces and environments for enhanced well-being can make a difference. For example, we design fitness rooms that have a wide range of equipment to support uses for people of all ages. Our residents have reported an increase in physical activity. Indeed, research has also shown the impact of convenience on frequency of activity. We design community spaces conducive to social interaction.  These spaces, coupled with a friendly culture facilitated by our Lifestyle Ambassador, have led to increased social engagement, including intergenerational connection. In addition, we provide access to lifestyle and health services intended to make life easier and less stressful, and promote a lifestyle of simplicity which allows people to focus on what’s most important.

The Choice is Yours

Increasing longevity is most beneficial to us if we have a high quality of life in those extra years. The good news is that the choice is largely ours. Each of us can take steps now, like instituting elements of the Power 9, towards a longer and healthier life.

The Stories Rental

Why Rent?

Why Rent?

For generations, a key element of the American Dream has been to own one’s home. This mentality was ushered in at scale during the 1950s when the Federal Housing Authority created attractive financing that led to the suburban housing boom. These homes housed many of today’s 76 million Baby Boomers. Not only has ownership been a goal for many, it has also been a key source of wealth creation, particularly in environments with low interest rates, reasonable leverage and appreciating home values. Why would anyone rent?

As it turns out, there are a number of reasons to rent. For some, it is simply a matter of economics: they do not have the means to own. However, for many, the housing bust of the last decade was a reminder that home ownership was not risk-free. Home ownership currently stands at 64%, down from the peak of 69% in 2004. Some of this drop is a result of the Great Recession, ongoing economic challenges for Millennials and rising housing costs, particularly in major metropolitan markets. But, there is another trend at work: the emergence of renters by choice.

Emergence of Renters by Choice

Renters by choice, by definition, can afford to either own or rent a home. They constitute a wide range of consumers. It can include young professionals and couples looking for flexibility, a desirable location and convenience. It can include single parents or transient families that do not wish to commit to homeownership. Or, it can involve empty nesters and retirees who see the benefit of downsizing and simplifying life and appreciate the financial benefits of renting, particularly in an era of increasing longevity.

What We Learned

We recently asked the question ‘Why Rent?’ to residents of The Stories at Congressional Plaza, a Smart Living 360 community in Rockville, Maryland. We sought out nearly a dozen renters by choice and sat down with them one-on-one to learn about why they chose The Stories and what have they have most appreciated at the community. Attributes mentioned were wide ranging but three key dimensions emerged: location, apartment design and financial sense.

Location, Location, Location

Like much of real estate in general, location reigned supreme.  A parent indicated that “my life revolves around this area – my extended family, my job, my place of worship” and praised the convenience that a central location provides. One woman, who works in the area, liked her proximity to work as she is one of those people who “likes to live and work close together.” One retired couple has lived much of their lives in the area and had “no desire to leave” an area they know so well and have established connections. Others extolled the benefits of having walkable access to restaurants, retail and the metro.

Home is My Castle

One of the frequent criticisms of apartment living is that it does not feel like home. However, residents we interviewed expressed the opposite: they have made The Stories their home. One female resident downsized from a larger apartment in Washington D.C., painted every room and selected custom fixtures and describes her living environment as “her sanctuary.” In another case, a retired couple selected wall paper, added technology features like the Nest and customized their closets. They signed a multi-year lease as they see the “community as their home”.  A single male who has moved many times over his life indicated that he and his dog prefer this environment to the single family house he previously lived in.

Renting Makes Good Financial Sense

A number of these renters by choice were confident renting was the best financial decision for them. One retired couple, who has both owned and rented over their lives, were convicted that “renting costs less”, pointed out the energy efficiencies of apartment living and saw renting as an “insurance policy against bad things that can happen to the real estate industry or a particular home”. Another resident, who is a financial advisor by trade, identified the “option value in renting” as well as the value in freeing up time from home maintenance. One resident sold her townhome to move into The Stories, in part, because of high condominium fees and other maintenance costs. One particularly financially astute resident lives in a one bedroom but owns property in the area. She has “rightsized her living space but is still part of the real estate investment game.”

Shifting Focus from Ownership to What’s Best for Personal Well-Being

For renters by choice, the question is less whether renting or buying is better but what living environment is best for personal well-being. We asked this question of residents surveyed, too. We were pleased to hear that most residents self-reported an improved sense of well-being. For some, it was increased physical activity with the convenience of a well-equipped fitness center or increased walking by living in a walkable area. For others, it was being part of a friendly community where you know your neighbors and opportunities exist to engage in community events. Perhaps the American Dream should be less about realizing home ownership and more about finding a home that helps each of us thrive.

Amazon Echo

“Alexa, can you…?”

Amazon’s Echo/Echo Dot was the hottest gift this holiday season. Amazon refused to disclose the actual number sold but indicated it was in the millions and approximately nine times greater than last holiday season. Indeed, even our family now has “Alexa” in our kitchen.

Alexa has been a hit. In our house, my wife & I use it to track items to buy at the grocery store (conventional grocery lists have never worked very well for us) and our kids use it for a number of smaller tasks, including getting the weather forecast and asking for jokes (“Why should you go on a cheese diet? If you need to cheddar a few pounds!”). People are using Alexa for all sorts of clever uses, including some examples where Alexa has been instrumental in positively impacting their well-being.

Technology Delivering on Some of its Promises, Particularly Artificial Intelligence

Alexa and its integrated capabilities with smart appliances using voice was a highlight earlier this month at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. CES is notorious for showcasing some early stage products that receive buzz but are ultimately duds: the Microsoft SPOT Watch, Netbooks and Google Glass. However, something very significant is happening in the area of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and deep learning, the key drivers behind Alexa. As The Economist outlines in its recent survey, AI, while victim to many false starts, is now gaining momentum with significant venture capital investment and is embedded in many of the recent technology advances from Alexa to autonomous vehicles to IBM’s Watson.

Technology’s Impact on Our Living Environments 

Following suit, Vivek Wadwa, a leading futurist in Silicon Valley, has declared 2017 the year of the bot (Alexa is an example of a bot), in a recent Washington Post article.  I heard Vivek speak last spring at the National Multifamily Housing Council’s Leadership Conference. He highlighted the impact of rapidly changing technologies and how our living environments will need to accommodate these advances to improve people’s quality of life. Examples include the need for physical spaces to support increased volume of deliveries (including via drones!), internet infrastructure to support high definition video, including as it relates to supporting telehealth, and the ability to coordinate on-demand services.

The Smart Living 360 Approach

Technology is a key element in the approach for Smart Living 360 communities. We include advanced equipment in our fitness centers, design spaces for telehealth capabilities and offer residents the ability to customize technology options, such as smart thermostats and smart entertainment systems. A critical design element is to create flexibility for new technologies as they emerge and to make them easy for people to use in an integrated way. We have found that technology advances can be as overwhelming as they can be helpful and helping people understand what’s most useful and how to use them can be very valuable. Our Lifestyle Ambassador takes the lead on this effort.

However, as important as technology is and the inevitably greater role it will have in our lives and managing our health, we see technology as taking a back seat to the critical importance of face-to-face connection, a subject of a 2016 blog.

There is a Limit to this Alexa

While Vivek Wadwa points out the benefits of these emerging technologies, he is also quick to point out the ethical and health challenges that many of these advances introduce. Much of our society struggles with social isolation and depression and we mustn’t let these digital friends take the place of real friends. According to a recent report in New Scientist, hundreds of thousands of people say ‘Good morning’ to Alexa every day, half a million people have professed their love for it and more than a quarter of a million have proposed marriage to it.

Embracing the benefits of technology while creating boundaries for its use will continue to be a key challenge of our age.  Fortunately, healthy living environments can help us strike the proper balance.

Design Thinking for Your Life

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us will reflect on the year that was and the year ahead. For some, this will involve New Year’s resolutions. This was often the case for my family growing up. However, as one considers bigger life changes, a simple new year’s goal may not be the best approach.

Impact and Opportunities Provided by Increasing Longevity

As we benefit from unprecedented increases in longevity – experts believe the first person to live to 150 is alive today – life’s chapters can be written very differently than in past generations. It’s not as simple as grow up, go to college, work and retire.  In fact, an increasing number of people are not looking to retire at any age. Others simply can’t afford to retire at sixty-five. And, for those who are younger, there is an opportunity to fundamentally rethink about how to allocate time by life stage. (Here’s a four minute video that looks into the implications and opportunities.)

Making the most of our lives in an era of increasing longevity is a complex problem. Fortunately, there are innovative people helping out. These people are taking tools that have worked for other complex problems and applying them to our lives. One of these tools is Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking has brought us the computer mouse, among other famous breakthrough innovations. Design Thinking, according to Wikipedia, is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result. It is centered on a users’ needs and preferences and is anchored in learning from real users’ feedback often through quickly and inexpensively assembled prototypes. Design Thinking started in the engineering field but has now influenced business more generally.

Design Thinking for Your Life

Now Design Thinking is being applied to one’s life. In the recently released Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, Stanford professors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, outline a process for using Design Thinking principles to build—design—a life one can thrive in, at any age or stage. Mr. Burnett, a professor at Stanford’s d.School, and Mr. Evans, a seasoned hi-tech entrepreneur and executive, teach “Designing Your Life”, one of the most popular elective classes at Stanford. Their book brings these ideas to a much larger audience, including those from a wide variety of life stages.

The initial step is to identify the problem with a Life Design Assessment which involves creating a Health/Work/Play/Love dashboard. After this assessment, the next step is to create a Lifeview (simply one’s ideas about the world and how it works) and then to observe one’s life through journal exercises to see what areas of life provide greatest engagement and energy. Next, there is ideation (i.e., efforts to brainstorm in a semi-structured way around possible directions) and then to begin prototyping specific actions because the best learning is by doing. Lessons from these prototypes provide feedback for future directions.

Design Thinking at Work at Smart Living 360

We used Design Thinking methods in creating the first Smart Living 360 community, The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville, Maryland. We partnered with graduate students studying Design Thinking at the The University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) to create, test and iterate on some of our physical design, marketing & leasing approaches and delivery of services. Critical to this was for the students to spend time in people’s homes to better understand what they may be looking for when ‘rightsizing’ to an apartment community in a walkable mixed-use setting.

Ironically, a number of our residents employed Design Thinking principles in deciding to move to The Stories. One recent resident, a recruiting executive, felt that she was isolated and had too much space to maintain in a three story townhome. Curious to see what else was available in the market, she discovered The Stories and was drawn to its design and efficient use of space, community-orientation and affordable and predictable cost. She signed a short term lease to try it out but expects to sign a longer term lease in the future. She is “prototyping” this new lifestyle and is very pleased with the results.

As people engage in life planning exercises, it’s entirely possible, even likely in certain cases, that changes in living environments will be a natural outcome.

Practice What You Preach

A recent new year goal for my Dad was to create a life plan. He’s made progress but he’s not there yet. My Christmas gift is to help him finish out a plan, using Designing Your Life as our guide. Who knows; maybe it will help my parents think through the best living environment for them in the years ahead.

Chocolate Cake

Relationships are the Cake

Around the Thanksgiving Table 

In a week, many of us will be around a dinner table with friends and family celebrating Thanksgiving. Along the way, it is estimated that close to 50 million turkeys will be consumed and certainly loads of stuffing, sweet potato casseroles and pumpkin pies.  While the food will be scrumptious, it is the company that will really matter and probably more than you realize.  Just look at the research.

Relationships Are The Cake

Dr. Dan Siegel is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and Executive Director of Mindsight Institute.  He is an author of dozens of books – most recently Mind – and he circles the world sharing his insights on the field called interpersonal neurobiology.  I recently heard him at a talk he gave in Baltimore as part of an event for an innovative and nationally recognized mentoring program called Thread.

Dr. Siegel studies how the brain grows and is influenced by interpersonal relationships.  He has been able to combine many approaches of what it means to be human from a scientific point of view, a developmental and practical perspective and how we find meaning in our lives.  In his view, it is this integration that is at the heart of well-being and mental health.

Your brain is not your mind, according to Dr. Siegel and his research.  Your mind is your whole body, including your brain, your heart and other organs, and interactions with other people.  This is the integrated view. It is in this thinking that “relationships are not the icing on the cake, they are the cake.”

In fact, he cites that the number one predictor for mental health, longevity, happiness and medical health is rich relationships.

He is also quick to note that while all relationships are important, your brain responds particularly well to relationships with people who are different than you.

His research indicates that the key to mental health is a combination of belonging to a community of face-to-face relationships along with caring for the body in an integrated way, including seeking exercise, nutrition, sleep and brain health.

A Timely Message

His research and insights come at a poignant time.  Following last week’s election, our divided country needs to find ways for dialogue and relationship among a diverse group of people.  It’s good to know that not only are such connections good for our country but they are also good for our brain health.

Moreover, anxiety and social isolation are becoming more common in our society.  The World Health Organization reports that nearly 20% of Americans indicate they suffer from chronic anxiety – a rate much higher than most developing countries.  Also, a hospital CEO I met  earlier this week says his organization’s greatest health challenge is not heart disease, obesity or diabetes but social isolation.  Community can help remedy these ills.  People are missing “the cake.”

Connection as a Pillar of Smart Living 360

Smart Living 360 creates innovative living environments that enhance well-being. One of the key principles is connection. Residents have opportunities to socialize and connect with their neighbors, family, and friends, as well as the community at large.  At The Stories at Congressional Plaza – the first Smart Living 360 community –   this has led to valued relationships, including intergenerational relationships.  We believe that a feeling of connectedness is part of the essence of well-being.  We see relationships as the cake, not the icing.


Dr. Siegel also explains how the brain responds to generosity. In a study where individuals could either keep $20 to spend on themselves or give the money away to others, researchers found that that brains of givers emit higher dopamine levels, an indication of higher levels of happiness. So, while you enjoy fellowship over Thanksgiving and the benefits of social connection, you may also want to offer the last piece of pumpkin pie to someone else – this may make you even happier. You may miss out on that last piece of pie, but by building a relationship you gain the whole cake.

All Hands on Deck

All Hands on Deck

All Hands on Deck

A couple of years ago, when our youngest child was in kindergarten, I visited the classroom. It was chaos.  Little people running around.  Lots of noise.  Even a little bit of stinkiness. It was more commotion than I was used to in a confined setting. The teacher did an amazing job of corralling the energetic kids and directing them towards productive activities. But she was not alone. She was often helped by Jim.

Initially, I thought Jim was a grandparent who helped out from time to time. Later, I thought he was a co-teacher given his great level of involvement. He focused on reading skills, including with our son, Andrew. Andrew benefited from the attention but he also liked Jim’s company. Andrew spoke fondly of how nice it was to have someone like ‘Papa’ or ‘Grandpop’ around even though his grandfathers lived across country.

Experience Corps

It turns out that Jim wasn’t related to any of the kids in the class. He was a volunteer as a part of Experience Corps, an organization that Marc Freedman of helped launch and that is now part of the AARP Foundation. In existence since the 1990s, Experience Corps has nearly 2,000 highly-trained volunteers working in 21 cities and serves over 30,000 students every year in high-need elementary schools. Baltimore has a particularly robust branch of Experience Corps with over 300 volunteers serving nearly 6,000 kids. Volunteers, like Jim, are trained and commit at least 15 hours a week in the classroom. This is an example of the intergenerational power of “all hands on deck.”

And It’s Proven to Be Good for Your Health

As one might expect, the impact is positive for the kids. The program has shown to improve reading and math test scores, increase attendance and positively impact the classroom climate.

The surprise is the impact on the volunteers. Evidence found by Johns Hopkins researchers and others indicate that older adults that volunteer for a significant number of hours each week reap important physical health, brain health and community outcomes as a result of the participation. In one study, purposeful activity embedded within a social health program halted and, in men, reversed declines in brain volume in regions vulnerable to dementia. In another study, participation in an intergenerational civic engagement program was shown to positively alter self-perceptions of generativity in older adulthood. In other words, it can help with purpose.

“All Hands” Can Happen Organically, Too

At The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville, MD the first Smart Living 360 community, we bring together people of all ages by design.  In the process, the power of serendipity can also create intergenerational connections. For example, Ms. Graff, a retired school teacher, was introduced to a family with two teenage girls that are being home schooled.  Part of their curriculum is French, one of Ms. Graff’s areas of expertise. Over the last month, she has tutored each of the girls and has seen encouraging development.

“It’s a true ‘win-win’,” says Ms. Graff, who resides in The Stories along with her husband. The girls benefit from one-on-one attention and Ms. Graff benefits from an opportunity to practice her French. Ms. Graff finds it particularly gratifying to work with motivated students and see them build confidence in their abilities and believe in their potential. This is beginning to happen with the girls. And it is all made easier by living in the same community with common spaces to meet and where transportation – walking and an elevator – is simple.

Renee, a 9th grader, attributes the tutoring relationship to something broader. She believes it’s the culture of the community. “People here want to help each other,” says Renee. Before moving into The Stories, her family lived in a single family home and did not know their neighbors as well. She’s been touched by this new environment where she has been helped and also helped others.  This is “all hands on deck” in action.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

The benefits of face-to-face connection are real and the value of intergenerational relationships is particularly important.  In today’s highly mobile, technology-enabled society, we may have to seek out intergenerational relationships much more so than in the past. One option may be to be live in communities where such relationships are common and encouraged. Regardless, with increasing lifespans – experts say the first person to live to 150 is alive today – many may find a reason to dive back into the unique atmosphere of kindergarten and, in the end, we will all be better off. “All hands on deck” is more than a nautical term. It’s a way to imagine intergenerational flourishing.

Financial Security

On Financial Well-Being

“Be Brilliant”

I stumbled across a clever TV commercial the other day.  Ameriprise Financial created a set of “Passions” commercials which highlights people doing what they love which was made possible by good financial planning.  In one commercial, people are living their “next chapters” as an architect turned boat builder, attorney turned potter, programmer turned beekeeper and accountant turned volunteer.  Ameriprise’s tagline is “When you have the right financial advisor, life can be brilliant.”  In essence, they highlight how financial well-being can influence other dimensions of well-being, including purpose.

Financial Management in a New Era of Longevity

It’s one thing to create a catchy commercial but quite another to actually execute a viable personal financial plan, especially in an era of increasing longevity.  Experts suggest that the first person to live to 150 years of age is alive today.  What must that person’s financial plan look like?!?

The truth is that we probably don’t know. We know that financial security – the perception that you have more than enough money to do what you want to do — has three times the impact of your income alone on overall wellbeing.  We also know that creating healthy defaults, such as having corporate retirement accounts pre-checked for employees which has been found to have achieve more than 80% participation, is important.  (Similar to the defaults for physical well-being that we explored last month.)  And, in a world where pensions are less common and social security is destined to get restructured, it seems highly likely that people will need to work longer.

Financial Management in the Shared Economy and Future of Home Ownership

What also may happen is that people of all ages, not just Millennials, will rethink what they have to own versus rent when they need a given product or service.  Of course, we are already seeing this in transportation with the growth of Uber and the advent of the autonomous vehicle.  But, what about other parts of our lives?

What about home ownership?  Home ownership in the US fell to 62.9% in the second quarter, the lowest level in more than 50 years and down from its peak of 69.2% in 2004.  Affordability and tightening credit standards are certainly key drivers impacting this trend.

On the other hand, maybe home ownership is not necessarily the best option, even for those who can afford it.  Single family houses, especially older ones, are expensive to maintain. They are subject to unexpected or substantial one-time costs like the replacement of a roof. They are also inefficient to heat and cool and costly to cover insurance and real estate taxes.  Also, people tend to overlook the opportunity cost of equity in their home.  And, for those more concerned about managing downside risk, the Great Recession was a reminder of the challenges of selling a home at an attractive price when the market turns the wrong direction.  For these reasons, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a growing market of “renters by choice.”

Role for New Housing Models that Improve Financial Well-Being

While apartment activity has been robust in recent years – unit starts have quadrupled to nearly 400,000 since 2009 – many industry experts expect this activity to continue, particularly if low interest rates persist.  At Smart Living 360, we see an opportunity to focus some of this development on creating communities that elevate personal well-being, including financial well-being.  For those with the resources to own homes, a number of people – including empty nesters – may find that renting is less expensive and a better financial decision, in addition to enjoying other benefits such as walkability to services, in-house amenities and developing rich social connections.  In fact, at The Stories at Congressional Plaza, we have seen a number of residents make this choice to rent for exactly these reasons.

A Great Day to Feel Alive

The Ameriprise commercial features the pop song “Day to Feel Alive.”  The lyrics make mention of the ups and downs of life but point to the fact at any stage it’s “Good to know, there’s so much to live for.”  Indeed, with good financial well-being, it is easier to feel alive and pursue those things of greatest importance.