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.

On Physical Well-Being

“Do Your Best and Forget the Rest”

Catch phrases by Tony Horton, creator of the home exercise phenomenon P90X, still ring in my head.  “Do your best and forget the rest.”  “Bring it.”  “Quality over quantity.”  P90X, short for Power 90 Days Extreme, is a series of home exercise videos created in 2003 that have sold 4.2 million copies.  These are intense workouts.

My wife and I got caught up in the P90X phenomenon back in 2010.  We turned our basement into a gym. Strength bands. Pull-up bar.  Some of the workouts nearly killed us, but they positively impacted our moods. We seemed to eat healthier and sleep better, too.

The Basics: Exercise, Food Choices, Sleep

Not everyone is suited for the intensity of P90X.  There is, however, a healthy balance that covers the basics of physical well-being.  Here are three:

Exercising, even briefly, can make a big impact for managing weight, improving mood, boosting energy and improving sleep. It is even helpful in combating disease. In fact, researchers in Cambridge, UK have found that just an hour’s exercise a week can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by almost half. The nature of exercise depends on the age and stage of life. For example, lifting weights may be more important as we age. It helps build bone density.  

We are what we eat.  The merits of the Mediterranean Diet are well documented, and grocery stores, restaurants and food delivery services are making it easier to identify and choose healthy options.

Sleep matters, too. One study found that people who get less than seven hours sleep were nearly three times as likely to develop a cold.  Arianna Huffington has raised the issue of sleep deprivation to the national public with her recent book, The Sleep Revolution.

Power of Healthy Defaults

In combination, these healthy choices make a big difference.  As Dr. Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, notes, “After 70, a mere four factors — exercising, not smoking, consuming alcohol only moderately and following a Mediterranean diet heavy on fruits, vegetables and healthy fats like olive oil — reduce by a whopping 60 percent one’s chance of dying from any cause over a ten-year period.”

Golden Opportunity for the Built Environment to Enhance Physical Well-Being

Your physical environment goes a long way towards making good choices a default choice.  By that, we recognize that most daily choices – upwards of 95 percent – are non-conscious, non-consciously chosen.  They are the product of our physical environment – and we take that into account in promoting well-being.

In the Smart Living 360 model, we invest significantly in a diverse array of physical fitness options for residents, ensuring that each community is embedded with the flexibility for people of all ages and stages to meet their physical fitness goals. We utilize the latest treadmills and StairMasters®, but we also incorporate the Expresso HD cardio bike that allows riders to cover terrain mirrored after real places, such as biking over the Golden Gate Bridge, and compete with other riders.  We have special stretching and strength equipment that are equally helpful for people looking for intensity and others who may be rehabbing from an injury or surgery.  Our lifestyle ambassadors help get people started with our gym.  Then, we bring in fitness instructors to create customized exercise regimens.

We also see an important role to help residents stay connected to physicians and wellness coaches. We have a room outfitted with the capabilities for telehealth. Over time, we expect residents to be able to easily share their key health data real-time with their physicians and other experts to help them stay healthy.

Taking a page out of my experience with P90X, we have also made it easy for people to stream exercise videos on a large TV, such as for yoga, Pilates and cardio workouts and to do so as a group.  In fact, the P90X DVDs my wife and I used have now been augmented by online streaming videos.  Residents can now stream P90X in our fitness gym but they should be warned of a risk.  They might hear Tony Horton talking to them in their sleep!

On Personal Connection

Technology is Amazing But It’s Not the Same as Personal, Face-to-Face Connection

Technology is transforming our lives. In a moment’s notice, we can summon a ride, skype a friend continents away or upload our health data to a physician for immediate feedback. Now, we even have tens of millions of people playing Pokémon Go across the globe!

However, for all its amazing benefits, it does not provide in person, face-to-face connection. And it turns out that it matters. It matters a lot.

Personal Connection is At Least as Important as Your Diet

In The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, Susan Pinker outlines the significant impact of face-to-face personal connection, such a connection that Facebook or Skype can’t provide. She notes in her book that “the connection between social involvement and robust physical and mental health is no fluke, and that the benefits of regular social contact are at least as powerful as regular exercise and a healthy diet.” Further, there are literally physiological changes that personal connection creates. In response to physical ailments, the right kind of social contact instructs the body to secrete more endogenous opiates, which act as local painkillers, and fewer hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and corticosterioids – the body’s often destructive answer to immediate stressors – which can affect our physical resilience.

Social connection can make a big difference for those warding off disease, such as cancer. Testing for the impact of social connection versus social isolation, researchers have found that female rats that live in groups are 84 times less likely as their socially isolated kin to develop breast cancer tumors. Among humans, socially isolated women are 66% percent more likely to die of breast cancer than women who had at least ten friends they could count.

The Surprising Impact of Your Social Network

One’s social network also has a surprisingly profound indirect impact. In fact, the habits of your social network can be contagious. Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, researchers have found that health problems such as obesity and alcoholism seem to travel from person to person within identifiable cliques. In other words, becoming obese can be contagious within real social networks, much the way a bad cold gets passed along at a dinner party.

There’s an important flip side, of course. The right socializing with the right friends can help you ward off loneliness and chronic illness. My brother-in-law, Dr. Henry Cloud, recently released his now New York Times best-selling book, The Power of the Other, which highlights many of the attributes of positive social connection that help lead to peak performance and high-levels of well-being.

At the Same Time, Isolation is Becoming More Prevalent

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, through his seminal work Bowling Alone in 2000, has been a vocal thought leader to highlight the emerging issue of social isolation. Today, 32 million Americans live alone, a figure that has risen every decade since the early 20th century. There are an additional 30 million people who may not live alone but characterize themselves as socially isolated and they are not happy about it.

Lessons from Blue Zones

The good news is that there are successful lessons to be learned elsewhere in the world. One such example is Sardinia’s Nuoro province which is considered a Blue Zone, a demographic and geographic area where people live measurably longer lines. Here, people benefit from rich multigenerational interactions and are part of a cultural expectation to pursue “reciprocal altruism”. Indeed, Harvard researchers have shown that people can live longer if they choose to live with a group of like-minded people creating, in effect, a village.

Opportunity to Create Communities, Not Buildings

All of this adds up to an enormous opportunity to create social capital within our built environments. On the surface, many apartment buildings and condominiums can be seen strictly as sticks and bricks. However, conceived and positioned differently, these environments can be thriving communities where positive social connection is fostered and nurtured.

Connection – personal, face-to-face connection – is one of the three core principles of Smart Living 360. We have designed common spaces to facilitate interaction, we host events to bring people together and our Lifestyle Ambassador makes special efforts to connect like-minded people. At our recently opened community, The Stories at Congressional Plaza, we are seeing the impact of this connection. One of our older residents, who has no immediate family in the area, has forged a friendship with a pre-teen whose family has recently relocated from California. Another resident hosts a monthly craft night where people in and outside of The Stories are invited to participate in making crafts through knitting, etc. Building of social capital is in progress.

Although technology will undoubtedly create unbelievable advances, we must never forget the irreplaceable importance of in-person face-to-face connections and recognize the opportunity to cultivate social capital through our physical environments.

On Purpose


It’s That Time of Year

This is commencement speech time.  Some of my favorites are the fictitious “Wear Sunscreen” commencement speech from the late ‘90s (which was later tuned into a song), Steve Jobs “How to Live Before You Die” at Stanford in 2005 (viewed over 8 million times on YouTube) and, from this year, Atul Gawande’s talk to CalTech on the importance of scientific thinking for all of us.  In our age of constant connectivity through text messages, tweets and facebook posts, these commencement speeches perhaps have never been more important to help us slow down for a moment and focus on what’s most important.  This time for reflection often points us to our purpose.

However, as much as thoughtful and inspiring commencement speeches are provocative, it feels like something larger is happening.  It seems like the narrative of finding one’s purpose is of increasing importance for people of all ages.  Indeed, Millennials have developed a reputation for seeking purpose in their jobs, not just a paycheck.  As Boomers enter retirement age, they, too, are increasingly looking at ways to use their gifts to make a difference, rather than just exit stage left from society.

Purpose Matters

The research community has an opinion on purpose.  It matters.  Dr. Laura Carstensen, Founding Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, points out in the video The Big Idea in 4 Minutes – Coming of Age In Aging America that “there isn’t anything in the psychology literature that suggests that it’s good for people to go on vacation for decades.”  People need purpose.  And, with purpose, people are more likely to look out for their health and well-being.  According to a research paper “Purpose in life and use of preventative health care services” by Kim, Stecher and Ryff, people with greater purpose are also more likely to be proactive in taking care of their health, including being more likely to pursue preventative health care services, such as flu shots, cholesterol tests, etc.  In other words, having greater purpose can be both better for the individual and for our society.

Institutions Supporting a Movement

Have a Purpose - Metropolitan College - 6-16Institutions are recognizing this greater sensitivity to purpose and are providing onramps.  Colleges, such as Metropolitan College of New York with their “Why just a have a job? Have a Purpose” campaign, are signaling to prospective students that their curriculum will help them find purpose.  Stanford University started the Distinguished Careers Institute, founded by Dr. Philip Pizzo, to attract established leaders eager to deepen their knowledge and/or embrace new fields and reflect on their life journeys, explore new pathways and redirect their lives for the common good.  AARP has a separate division called Life Reimagined and has created a set of tools, including a “LifeMap” to help people of all ages discover their purpose and create a plan of action.

Housing that Increases Purpose

Housing can have a critical role in increasing purpose, too.  At Smart Living 360, we believe that residential communities can be a catalyst for people to find greater purpose.  We encourage residents to share their goals and aspirations with others in the community.  We facilitate friendships between residents and provide opportunities for people to help each other use their unique gifts, which is particularly powerful in an intergenerational context.  We have relationships with life coaches and host workshops on life planning.  We have connections with local groups for volunteering opportunities.  (If you’re wondering how we achieve these lofty goals then check out the three minute fast pitch talk at the Encore conference earlier this year.  It outlines in greater detail my vision for creating communities of purpose.)

We all benefit from the momentarily lift of an inspirational commencement talk. But the real opportunity is to have purpose more wired into our day-to-day actions.  Research demonstrates that it is good for our health and our society.  So let’s get going!

Well Being


Longevity: Nature vs. Nurture?

My grandparents had a strong influence on my life.  My maternal grandfather, “Ace” as his basketball teammates used to call him, wrote scores of letters to me and encouraged me to play hoops which I still enjoy today.  From Pittsburgh, my paternal grandfather, an academic researcher and owner of dozens of patents, influenced my interest in innovation and sparked my loyalty to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Of course, one of the reasons they had a big impact was that they lived long and healthy lives.  Each of my grandparents lived past age 75 with my paternal grandmother living into her early 90s.  My parents are also healthy and are in their early 70s.  I feel blessed to have good genes and to have comfort that I am predisposed to also live a long, healthy life.

Or so I thought.  Actually, it turns out that as we get older, our lifestyle is more important than our DNA in influencing the length and quality of our life.  Yes, as Dr. Laura Carstensen, Founding Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, points out in her book, A Long Bright Future, “except in extreme cases — when an inherited illness causes family members to die before age 60 — ancestral longevity isn’t a very important predictor of individual longevity.”

In short, as you age, your lifestyle is more important than your DNA.

While this may be disappointing to people like me with good genes, I think it is a net positive for all of us.  It means that we really can influence the trajectory of our lives though our life choices.


Well-Being 101

So what is lifestyle?  What do good choices look like?

One approach is to focus on well-being.

Bill Novelli, a professor at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and former CEO of AARP – and moderator of The Future of Housing For Grown-Ups: A National and Local Perspective hosted at The Stories (read a summary of this event in Forbes), first introduced me to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.  This self-reported index focused on five areas:

  1. Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  2. Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  3. Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  4. Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
  5. Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

The index has been tracking well-being along these measures since 2008 and has data from over 2 million surveys.  In its most recent survey, among the largest 190 metropolitan markets nationwide, Naples, FL ranked first and Charleston, West Virginia scored the lowest.

Well-being is of increasing interest.  To an individual, as mentioned above, it can help influence the trajectory of your life.  To companies, improved well-being can reduce employee health costs.   To health systems and our government, higher well-being across a population can help manage health care costs as we move from fee for service to value based health care as part of the affordable care act.


Rethinking the Role of Housing

Sometimes, we think of housing as simply a place to just hang our hat, but it can be so much more.  What if housing played a key role in elevating personal well-being and such options were available for people of all ages and stages and income levels?  What would this look like?

I believe it starts with an intentional physical blueprint as well as an intentional culture to help bring out the best in each person.  Physical design elements, such as spacious and well-located common spaces, can help promote social connection.   Universal design features and state-of-the-art fitness centers in a walkable location can help improve physical health.  Resident-led programming and greater connectivity to each other can help people feel a greater sense of pride and security in their community.  Greater ties to resources in the local community – often facilitated by some onsite staff – can also elevate purpose (see my three minute fast pitch talk at the 2016 Encore Conference on the opportunities to create communities of purpose).  If thoughtfully and efficiently conceived, such an environment can be fiscally wise, too.

With so many changes and advances in our culture, this is an exciting time to rethink the role of housing.  It can become a foundation for personal well-being and have an impact on all of us ranging grandparents to empty nesters to young families to young couples to singles.  As my grandfather, Ace, would often pen to me, this is an exciting time to be alive.

Mainstreet Map


Carlota might be the most well-read person I ever met. Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, among others, seem to be her friends. She seemed to literally exist in some of her favorite books.

Carlota was an older neighbor growing up. Sadly, outside of her housekeeper, my mom, sister and I seemed to be the only other people that visited her. She lived in a single family home in the suburbs but was invisible to many. At some point along the way, she would have had a better life in a different living environment.


About 75% of people 65 and older live in the suburbs and the vast majority of these people live in single family homes. One challenge is that many of these older homes were not designed with older adults in mind. There are complications related to stairs, antiquated bathrooms and kitchens, and other features of older homes. It can be complicated and expensive to retrofit. Home maintenance is a hassle and often expensive; some costs, such as for a new roof, can be substantial and unexpected – not good for people on fixed income. These homes are often not energy efficient and equipping them with the latest technology can be very challenging and, sometimes, not feasible.

But challenges extend beyond the physical environment. Most suburban homes are not close to services and amenities; they were designed with the car in mind. Therefore, people need to drive to Main Street or The City often to get things they need. This distance coupled with the geographic dispersion of single family homes makes it difficult for services to be delivered efficiently to the home.

But the biggest challenge is that of isolation: individual isolation. Researchers tells us that isolation is more dangerous to your health than smoking.

As neighborhoods change, social networks change and it is not unusual for older adults to not be as socially connected as they once were. This was certainly the case with Carlota.


Carlota had no interest in moving from her home. There were a few reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason was that she couldn’t imagine moving miles away to live just with old people. She got a thrill when our young family would visit; she didn’t want to lose this connection. See, she couldn’t fathom moving into Shady Acres.


The primary option we provide for older adults is Shady Acres, the retirement home miles away on the hill where all the old people live. Here, even more so than a suburban home, you are far away from Main Street and The City. It just doesn’t feel like home. For many, there can be a sense of giving up control. Even just giving up.

But the challenges go beyond location and mindset. Shady Acres often tries to recreate Main Street. There are multiple dining venues, beauty salons, programming spaces and so on. It’s expensive to build and even more expensive to staff and maintain. Correspondingly, it is expensive to live in Shady Acres. Particularly as we enter an era where pensions are less prevalent, few people can afford Shady Acres.

But the biggest problem is that it is separate and apart from society. It’s all old people. See the biggest challenge is also isolation: institutional isolation.

What if we flipped things upside down? What if, instead of being far away, we created housing environments for grown ups that were amidst people of all ages? What if, instead of having people on their own for services or paying for bundled services they didn’t want or need, we created a way for services to come when they were needed? What if, instead of dated single family homes or outmoded floorplans at Shady Acres, we created an attractive, forward thinking built environment that support health & well-being?

What if we could trade isolation for connection?

What would “Sunny Mid-Rise” look like in walkable, mixed-use, intergenerational environment?

We’ll explore this further next month.



Ryan & Betty Cobb - 9-22-15At age 29, I did something a bit unusual.  I moved into a retirement community.  I left Silicon Valley with the notion that there was an opportunity to improve the quality of lives of older adults through innovation.  I figured there was no better place to start to learn about older adults than to live among them.  I headed to Atlanta.


I have always had a fondness for older adults, or “senior citizens” as my grandparents and their peers didn’t mind being called.   Though we lived across the country from my extended family, I was close to my grandparents, especially my mom’s father who routinely wrote me long letters about life.  He must have spent hours on these letters – hunting and pecking for the right letter on his well-worn typewriter.  His letters on the Great Depression were particularly detailed.  I have kept them all and, from time to time, I re-read them.  I often wish I read these letters a little closer when I was younger.

But the most impactful life experience that fueled my interest in older adults was a buddy program established by my sixth grade teacher, Marge Zellner.  Through her program, we played the recorder and sat down with residents of Lytton Gardens, an Assisted Living community in Palo Alto.  I was matched with Melba Rowlands.  Melba was blind but otherwise healthy.   She had no immediate family in the area. We filled a void for each other. While the program was intended to be just for sixth grade, I so enjoyed my time and relationship with Melba that we met regularly for three years, until I was absorbed in the demands and distractions of high school.


Even though it was only for a few weeks, I couldn’t talk my wife into joining me in living in the retirement community.  I warned her of the risks.  Sure enough, I was the only male on my floor and only person under 75.  The ladies loved me.  Cookies, brownies, love notes streamed in.  I had a number of meals with my friend, Betty Cobb.  Betty loved living in a retirement community.  She loved the comradery.  She loved all her meals in the dining room.  She loved bingo.  Just like my grandparents, she didn’t mind being called a senior.

One day, I got a call from my mom.  I could tell she was concerned.  She was wondering what career path would involve living in a retirement community.  This was not the life she envisioned for her son. Thinking quickly on my feet I said “Mom, I’m doing this for you.  I’m trying to create a place that you’d want to live in.” She felt relieved but also empowered.  She said, “Good because I’m not moving into one of those communities when I get older. I want be around people of all ages, not just old people.  I can’t possibly imagine going to the same dining room every day.  I don’t play bingo.  And don’t dare call me a senior.”  Do you know anyone that feels that way?


Sure, Betty and my mom are from different generations and have different preferences.   But’s it’s so much more than that. We’re entering a new era of longevity. If you are 65 and healthy & educated, odds are you are going to live past 90.  It’s a whole 25 years beyond traditional retirement.

But it’s not just about older people; we’re all living longer.  They say the first person to live to 150 years is alive today.  It’s crazy. It’s difficult to understand the full ramifications of this change.  Researchers are telling us that your lifestyle is more important than your DNA.  It turns out that how long your parents lived isn’t a very important predictor of individual longevity.  It’s becoming more about choosing a lifestyle than enhances your well-being.  This is something that’s important at any age.  If we’re now blessed with these extra years, the real goal, I believe, should be to make these years the most rewarding and fulfilling as possible, not just exist and wait to die.

In the next blog post, I will explore the current housing options for today’s older adults and how they tend to suffer from a common and significant challenge: isolation.  I will also introduce a new approach – one that is anchored on connection and integration into the broader community.