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.

Getting By With Help From My Friends

With a Little Help from My Animal Friends

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

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

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

With a Little Help from My Human Friends

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

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

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

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

Importance of Our Physical Environment

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

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

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

Unlike Animals, We Have Choice 

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

Man Sleeping

Sleep and 8 Hours Mike

8 Hours Mike

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

Benefits of Sleep and Health Risks with Sleep Depravation

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

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

Don't Drive Tired

Basics of Sleep

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

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

Sleep Across the Age Spectrum

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

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

Best Practices and Impact of Living Environment

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

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

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

A Need for More 8 Hours Mikes

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

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.

ThanksGIVING

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 Encore.org 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.

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.