Commitment to Place - SmartLiving 360 Blog

Commitment to Place

More and more, we are realizing that place matters. Zip code can predict life expectancy – gaps of as much as 30 years exist for zip codes within Chicago, for example. And, of course, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the impact of place. On a per capita basis, states like Oregon, Texas and Vermont have been relatively unscathed while New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have been ten times more lethal. We may not know the exact reasons, but it’s clear that place matters.

By place, I mean the elements of country, region, metropolitan area, urban, suburban or rural environment, neighborhood and, of course, physical dwelling. All considered, these variables can create an almost endless list of possibilities, particularly for those with financial resources. To find the exact perfect place, you would need a quantum computer to create all of the possible scenarios.

But what if you intentionally limit your options? What if you made a commitment to stay in one place?

Some people are suggesting to do just this. In his commencement speech to the Purdue University Class of 2020, President Mitch Daniels makes a case for rooting yourself in a place. His argument is based on the value of social connection. He admits that he has prioritized work over relationships and, looking back, he’s worse for it. He fears that young people today, raised entirely in the iPhone era, “won’t make friends at all.”

Daniels points out that one of the main ways to immunize against loneliness is geographic rootedness. People who live in the same community for extended periods are far less likely to be lonely. Proximity facilities repeated interactions and time together is a key determinant in developing friendships. Researchers indicate that it takes about 50 hours to move from an acquaintance to a casual friendship, about 100 hours to call someone a friend, and over 200 hours of togetherness to become best friends.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels delivering his 2020 commencement speech on the importance of place

For those who have not chosen place yet or are open to change, one option is to live close to your friends. C.S. Lewis was explicit in this strategy when he wrote, “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods … the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young person about where to live, I (would) say sacrifice almost everything to live near your friends.” Even now in the area of ubiquitous zoom and houseparty video calls, I suspect that C.S. Lewis would offer similar guidance.

Shortly before the coronavirus outbreak, I had lunch with an acquaintance visiting from Indiana. The conversation led to why his family chose to move to a suburb of Indianapolis, particularly given that he is not from the area and his job didn’t require him to be there. For him and his wife, it was simple: friends. They coordinated with four of their closest friends located in various parts of the country to move into one neighborhood and onto one street. They are raising their families together. It comes with trade-offs – most are not close to family, some could afford nicer homes in “better” locations, and more lucrative jobs could be found elsewhere – but, in their view, the day-to-day lived experience is incomparable being enmeshed in life amongst their dearest of friends.

People who commit to place and invest in relationships locally to the betterment of their area are called weavers, according to David Brooks. Weavers view their community as home and look to make it as welcoming as possible. They have a genuine concern for the trajectory of their place and prioritize neighbors, broadly defined. They may not do it for the relationships, but odds are these relationships take on great meaning in their lives and provide a level of social support, almost akin to family. It’s important to note that you can’t be a weaver if you move every couple of years to find the next best place.

However, decisions related to place can get more challenging as we age. Within the last twenty years, the percentage of retirement-age citizens living within 10 miles of their children, in the same neighborhood with any relative, or having a good friend living nearby, dropped by double digits. This reality has left many of us or our loved ones with tough choices: should one stay in place or move closer to family and friends? The best option may to remain in one’s existing neighborhood but get more rooted.

Minneapolis is an Age-Friendly City that is also Making Sweeping Changes to its Zoning Laws to Enable More Housing
Minneapolis is an age-friendly city that is also making sweeping changes to its zoning laws to enable more housing

Trends are making it easier to stay in existing communities. Changes in zoning laws, such as allowing for accessible dwelling units (ADUs), are making it easier to downsize to another home in your existing area. Technology advances and health services are making it easier for services to be delivered to you. The World Health Organization and AARP are helping municipalities become more age-friendly, with about 500 communities signed up as part of the program. Collective impact initiatives, including a recent effort by Praxis in starting place-based guilds, are helping communities band together to raise the quality of life of their residents.

For author, poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry, committing to place has come naturally. His place is an agrarian small county in Kentucky. He writes:

“And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place and had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”

Perhaps now is the time to evaluate your commitment to your current place. If you’re in a reasonable spot, maybe it’s worth doubling down in a more significant and long-term way. If you’re not in such a place, perhaps it’s worth finding an attractive spot and creating roots as you age. Odds are that your future self will thank you.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


If you like this blog, you can subscribe to Ryan’s mailing list to be contacted with links to his latest blogs and other relevant content.

Subscribe to Ryan's Newsletter

Physical Distancing with Social Connection, Not Social Distancing

Physical Distancing with Social Connection, Not Social Distancing

One of my closest friends, Mike, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two young kids. Several months ago, Mike’s mom, a widow, moved a few blocks away, in part to spend more time with her grandkids. “Gramsie” volunteers at their school, ventures with them on city excursions and regularly shares family meals. However, with the coronavirus, these activities have been suspended. Indefinitely. She and they are practicing social distancing. But all still crave connection. So they’re improvising. Over the last few days, she has been reading books to her grandkids over FaceTime. If this crisis continues, she may even need to channel her old school teacher ways and provide some home schooling via video conference from her apartment. I know Mike, like many parents in his spot, juggling kids at home and attempting to work from home, would appreciate the relief. Gramsie will no doubt relish the social company of her grandchildren.

Social distancing – the practice of maintaining a distance between people, typically at least six feet, and minimizing in-person social encounters — may be a key in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19. In the absence of a vaccine, containment coupled with widespread testing are our best bets to minimize the impact of the pandemic.

However, we can do better than social distancing. We need physical distancing. And with it, a very large dose of social connection at the same time. Some are calling this remote connecting.

Take older adults, for example. There are currently about 45 million people 65 years or older, and about a quarter live alone. Studies show that more than 40% feel lonely at least some of the time. Both social isolation and loneliness are linked to a myriad of health risks ranging from depression to heart disease to strokes and more. These are the facts prior to the pandemic. Social distancing will likely make this worse, particularly given that older adults face the dual threat of isolation coupled with the anxiety of a disease that hits their demographic the hardest.

But the risk of social distancing holds true for all of us. Particularly as more measures of disease containment increase to a complete lockdown, or sheltering in place, we will all struggle with the ability to connect with others on a regular basis. It might be hardest for Millennials who are cited as the loneliest group according to a recent Cigna study, or it could be for Gen Xers like Mike, who are squeezed managing their young families at home while attempting to be productive working from home.

Collectively, we’re all going to have to do something about it. We’re going to have to change our behaviors even more than we may initially realize. We need to practice physical distancing with a heavy dose of connection. Fortunately, even though it’s just been a few days of this new reality, we’re already seeing some good examples.

Kids playing their instruments to a self-quarantined older adult neighbor (Source: YouTube)

How about the kids in Ohio who sought out an older neighbor and played their instruments at a safe distance to bring her joy? Or Italians spontaneously singing from their balconies?

My friend, Joy Zhang, is the co-founder of Mon Ami, a venture-backed start-up marketplace that links college students with older adults for social visits. They are tackling the risks of social isolation and loneliness through intergenerational connections. During this current time, they have turned virtual. They have developed a volunteer phone bank to connect isolated older adults with those who wish to call on them.

Alex Smith, a current Encore Public Voices Fellow (Joy and I were part of the initial cohort last year), is getting creative with his efforts to combat loneliness in the UK. His organization, The Cares Family, is tackling loneliness at the present with a combination of technology, such as Zoom and Skype calls, with physical postcards and poems sent by younger people to older adults.

In Canada, the term #caremongering has been trending. What started as a way to help vulnerable people in Toronto has spread throughout the country with more than 35 Facebook groups set up in less than three days encompassing tens of thousands of people. The purpose is to link people who can help with those who need it.

We’ve seen the same thing in our neighborhood in Austin. Nextdoor has been the primary social media vehicle. People are virtually reaching out to neighbors – in some cases for the first time – to see how they can be helpful doing necessary errands. It’s a tech savvy area so it’s not uncommon for people in their 80s to be connected and active. Given that it’s an area that likes to bar-b-que, one of the neighbors has volunteered to cook and deliver BBQ food.

A neighbor offering his BBQ skills for the neighborhood (Nextdoor)

These stories, and plenty of others that we don’t know about, are uplifting at such a critical time. And what’s so important is, while we’re most concerned about our individual and family’s health, these are examples of people reaching out to people outside of their immediate network. This is what contributes to the healthy social fabric of our communities.

But it doesn’t have to stop there. With the ease of today’s technology, we can reach out and virtually connect with people beyond our neighborhood and networks. Maybe it is a time to engage in sites like Mon Ami and make sure people are covered both near and far.

We also need to recognize that some means of communication are more enriching than others. According to former Surgeon General and author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Vivek Murty, “Video conferences and phone calls are more rich than texting or emailing alone.” Let’s err on the side of using the video conferencing apps even if we’re having a bad hair day.

Social distancing is markedly better than no social distancing. But we’re far better employing physical distancing with a heavy dose of social connection. Pick up your phone, use your video chatting app or your instrument, and do your part. We’ll all be better for it now and on the other side of this crisis.

Unfortunately, we’re likely in for a long, bumpy ride, but let’s make it an opportunity to bring us all together for the better. Who knows, maybe a person you reach out to would love to virtually read to your kids or, better yet, might be able and willing to remotely home school your kids. Maybe this an opportunity for you and your family to gain a virtual Gramsie.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


If you like this blog, you can subscribe to Ryan’s mailing list to be contacted with links to his latest blogs and other relevant content.

Subscribe to Ryan's Newsletter

Finding Your Kin - the importance of friendships as we age

Finding Your Kin: The Importance of Friendship as You Age

Approaching eighteen years ago, my wife and I were married over the July 4th holiday weekend in Southern California. Many made a vacation of it and we were fortunate to be surrounded by a large number of family and friends. Our parents’ “chosen family” – their collection of close friends – was also well-represented. I took note.

Both sets of our parents shared a similar life’s journey, moving from the Rust Belt – a mix of Pennsylvania and upper state New York – to California, with stops along the way. With each life chapter they picked up friends. From childhood, college, the military, work, neighbors, kids’ school, volunteering, church and more. Some of these friendships became as deep as blood lines. They became chosen family. The people you would choose as family if you could. Chosen family was necessary because their extended family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles – were thousands of miles away.

In the cover article of the March issue of The Atlantic, The Nuclear Family was a Mistake, the author, David Brooks, outlines a narrative of family formation from the early days of our country to the present. In short, when our society was agrarian, our families were large – 8 or 9 kids was not uncommon – and extended family lived close by. Kids and family were necessary for the economic engine of farming. With industrialization, young people pursued economic opportunity and left for the city and burgeoning suburbs. They formed their own nuclear families, often far from extended family. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans lived with their kids and grandkids. By 1960, the ratio flipped, with 77.5% of all children living with two parents who were married, and apart from their extended family. Our parents fit into Brooks’s description.

Finding your kin - A nuclear family is great, but where’s the extended family?
A nuclear family is great, but where’s the extended family?

Along the course, Brooks argues, we traded family stability and loyalty for convenience, privacy and mobility, with important benefits but also often overlooked costs.

In short, the good news about our modern culture: you are on your own. You are free to choose your path in life. Manifest destiny. Carpe diem.

Conversely, the bad news about our modern culture: you are on your own. Life will surely knock you down and you may not have someone alongside to pick you up. It should come as no surprise that loneliness and depression are rising.

What’s one to do, particularly in a life that may span a century and be full of the inevitable ups and downs?

We need to find our people. Our kin. Our chosen family.

Friendships take chemistry and they take time. Researchers suggest that it takes about 50 hours to move from an acquaintance to a friend and as many as 200 hours to consider somebody a best friend. Chosen family are more akin to best friends. You should feel comfortable to reach out to them at any time and they should be responsive.

Many of us need chosen family throughout life, but some chapters are more critical than others. Some of us are caught in the sandwich generation: caring for kids and parents simultaneously. This can be extraordinarily stressful and often the burden falls on the adult daughter. My good friend, Anne Tumlinson, started and runs Daughterhood.org, which provides content and support for women supporting their parents. Daughterhood.org organizes circle groups that allow women with common challenges to come together in person and support each other. For some, this can be the beginning of finding chosen family at a key time.

Older adults often need chosen family, too. We are new to Austin but our neighbor in her early 80s, Colleen, has sought us out. She has asked my wife to stop in to help out around the house and to run some errands for her. I’ve provided some training on Google Sheets at her request. Maybe that’s just what a good neighbor does. Or maybe it’s the beginning of adding chosen family.

Finding your kin - Chosen family is particularly powerful when it spans generations
Chosen family is particularly powerful when it spans generations

In other situations, we need to be aware of people who need chosen family, and take action. Paige, part of our chosen family from our years in San Francisco, now lives in Richmond, Virginia. She and her young daughters have made a friendship with an older widow on their street, Miss Polly. Paige could tell that Miss Polly was lonely and so she started visiting with no set agenda. Just to say hi. These visits became more regular – at least weekly – and a special, intergenerational bond has formed.

Place matters. Chosen family – at least some of it – must be close enough so you can spend time together and be there for life’s various twists and turns. Finding your kin can happen virtually anywhere, but some places are easier than others. If you don’t have your kin and you’ve been trying for some time, maybe it’s time to change places. Maybe you are just not in the right place for you now.

I should mention that chosen family ought not to replace family but to augment it. While our family lives across the country and beyond, we’re still able to get our extended family together most years. A couple of years ago, we started a text thread that includes about a dozen family members across three generations. People share funny stories, memorable pictures and prayer requests. It’s a way to keep in touch even though we’re not physically close.

With two teenagers and an aspiring teenager, our immediate family is not planning any weddings in the near future. However, when the time comes, I’ll be eager to celebrate with our family, our chosen family and chosen family that we have yet to meet. There will be much to be grateful for.

Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Find out more.


If you like this blog, you can subscribe to Ryan’s mailing list to be contacted with links to his latest blogs and other relevant content.

Subscribe to Ryan's Newsletter
Are You Too Efficient?

Are You Too Efficient?

I stayed with some good friends recently and the strangest thing happened. My friend, Ted, picked me up at the airport. And then he dropped me off at the airport at the end of the weekend. Surely he’s heard of Uber, right?

Ted is a busy guy. He’s got a full house of kids, pets and a wife. He’s got a job with a lot of responsibility. He’s got an old house that has an endless list of projects to demand his attention. What’s he doing taking 90 minutes out of his day on two occasions on one weekend? Why not Lyft? And why did it feel so counter-cultural?

We live in an amazing time. If you want it and can afford it then it’s yours. Now. Instantaneously. We’re in the midst of our whole life becoming Amazon Primed. Transport: Uber & Lyft. Food: DoorDash, GrubHub. Entertainment: Netflix, Hulu and now Apple. Projects at home: TaskRabbit, Takl. Healthcare on demand is just around the corner.

We can even pay people to be our friends. Yes, there’s such a service: www.rentafriend.com.

What’s not to like?

An efficiency tool from the ‘90s: The Sharp YO-600

If efficiency is a god, then I am a worshipper – front pew. When I was in college in the ‘90s, PDA meant public display of affection. But not for me, I was an electrical engineer. I was one of the first adopters of the real PDAs: personal digital assistants. I purchased a Sharp PDA with a keyboard to keep all of my contacts. There was no way to get data off of it, it was slow and battery life was miserable. But, in my mind, it made me more efficient so I picked it up and became a power user.

Of course, the ‘90s was mere child’s play compared to today. My old phone died recently and I upgraded to the latest iPhone. It’s got it all. Email. Video. Movies. Sports. Kindle. Camera. Strava. Endless battery life. All on a 5G network. I can maximize every minute of my day in line with my highest priorities; it’s Heaven for those that praise efficiency.

But not all cultures elevate efficiency to deity status. Take Africa for example. A friend who has traveled there frequently sums it up well: Americans have watches, Africans have time. Hmm.

Ted lived for a stretch in Africa well before today’s heyday of efficiency in the States. He said that in his experience much of the economy was based on doing things for others. Someone would do a favor for another. No money would be exchanged, but a tacit agreement was formed. One would be indebted to the other until a return favor was provided. Then the tables were turned. This could back and forth for years and span generations. I’m sure it could get messy when accounting is subject to interpretation and memories fade, but it links services rendered to relationships with others.

When life becomes pure transactions – pure digital transactions – we lose the opportunity for a transaction to become a relationship. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a deep relationship – there’s plenty of evidence of the value of weak tie connections. However, some weak ties grow to strong ties with more time spent and the right bit of chemistry. These deep connections are priceless.

People and relationships are messy but the alternative is worse. At this point, everyone is talking and writing about the damaging impact of social isolation and loneliness. The former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, was one of the first to declare our country facing a loneliness epidemic in 2017. His book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, comes out in the spring. My bet is these conversations have only begun. None of us are equipped to thrive in this gilded age of efficiency.

Example of neighbors helping neighbors to improve a home – an alternative to TaskRabbit (source: Argus Observer)

So what should we do?

We should err on the side of becoming intentionally inefficient. As a friend and mentor of mine once summed up his life’s advice: ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.

A strange thing happens when we become intentionally inefficient: we get to experience life. We’re not double booked and running from one event to another. We’re able to be present and connect with those around us. We’re able to see the person, not just the transaction.

We have an opportunity to take advantage of place. Have a front porch? Use it. A kitchen to host people? Use it. Have a basketball hoop that goes underused? Invite some kids in the neighborhood to use it. Need some help around the house? Eschew the latest app and reach out to a neighbor. As my mom told me growing up, the best way to make a friend is to ask for help.

Turn the TV off, put the phone down and get involved in your community. More groups are making it easier to connect with people of all ages to help each other. For example, Encore.org just launched a Gen2Gen Cities report to help share best practices for creating intergenerational connectivity. This is productive intentional inefficiency.

And, when you have a need that could be serviced by an app, pause for just a moment and consider if it’s too efficient, or if there’s another way. Because, in the end, our on demand world has huge advantages but not if we rely on it exclusively.

And, let me know if you visit Austin and need a ride. I’ll do my best to pick you up.

Want to have Ryan speak at your event? For speaking engagements or media inquiries, please contact Ryan.


If you like this blog, you can subscribe to Ryan’s mailing list to be contacted with links to his latest blogs and other relevant content.

Stay with friends - packed luggage

Stay With Friends

This weekend I am getting together with several of my closest friends. These are lifelong friends from college. We’ve been through a lot over the decades – from international adventures and weddings to the loss or physical decline of parents and other challenges life has put in our way. We live in different parts of the country, from Seattle to Philadelphia to New York City to Austin, so getting together in person is a rare treat.

These friendships weren’t forged in 45-minute coffee meetings or 60-minute lunch dates. These friendships weren’t driven by efficiency and ROI; they were forged by circumstance and inconvenience. They happened because we were roommates and we imposed on each other’s spaces and schedules. We sacrificed sleep for important conversations. We shared pizza at 2am when none of us were hungry but just wanted to be together. We planned practical jokes that took precedence over studying.

I may have done worse in a given class because of these misadventures, but I am certain I got more out of college.

Stay with friends - old friends on the beach
Some of the best friendships are forged through spontaneous conversations

But things are different now. We are busy. Not just in the family life stage busy, but in new modern life busy.

And people don’t answer their phones anymore. Maybe it’s just me, but I get sent to voicemail more often than in the past. This is a phenomenon among my good friends, too. It’s even happening with my mom. When my mom doesn’t take my calls, it gets my attention.

But I don’t think it’s me. As a society, we are becoming increasingly enslaved by efficiency: we’re plagued by busyness.

Writer Judith Shulevitz unpacks this issue in her article Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore in the Atlantic. Part of the dynamic is driven by hectic work schedules, either through the increasing prevalence of ad hoc demands of gig economy workers or the 24×7 nature of many work environments. She highlights how enterprise work tools, like Slack, Trello and online group calendaring, are now being used in the home to help manage the chaos. Somehow, the technology that promised to create freedom and time has done just the opposite. She suggests that many of us need to do a better job of creating boundaries and elevating the most important.

For example, have we reached a point that talking to a good friend requires a scheduled call, possibly weeks out?

My antidote: I impose. I travel frequently and my new mandate is to stay with friends wherever possible. It can be inconvenient – sometimes it’s nice to relax with room service and a movie in a hotel or to feel the accomplishment of being on top of my email – but there is no equivalent to catching up with a friend in person and in their own environment. And it can be inconvenient for those hosting, too. Life can be busy enough on a given weekday night, and making a bed and an extra meal can be a bit much.

Stay with friends - guest room
No one is going to confuse this with a contemporary hotel room, but you get to stay with friends

The experiment is going well so far. I’ve been able to drop in on birthday parties and neighborhood get-togethers, grab a late night beer and go on morning runs. I’ve been able to get a window into a friend’s life that Facebook, Instagram and text messaging won’t allow. I have some friends going through harder times, and spending time with them in person and off the clock has been a gift.

Sometimes, staying with friends hasn’t worked. When schedules haven’t aligned, the gesture of asking to stay with friends has signaled that these friends matter to me. In an age of disconnection, even that message can be valuable.

The reality is that proximity matters in relationships and in your overall well-being (see The Power of Place blog for more on the research.) As Susan Pinker reminds us in her book, The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, there is simply no adequate substitute for seeing people in person. Sometimes, you just need to take full advantage of when you are physically close to friends.

I urge you to consider staying with friends when you have the chance. And make it easier for people to stay with you. Make it known that you have space and would welcome a visit. Not everyone is as comfortable imposing as I am, bless my heart, and that nudge can make all the difference.

These considerations are important as we plan our lives and our investment in place and space, too. Do you have space for a friend or family member to visit? If not, what can be changed to make it possible? For example, can an office be converted to be a makeshift guest room? If you are looking to downsize, will your new space have room for guests? In our modern era of busyness, making it easy for people to impose can make all the difference to stay close to your friends.

So be careful. I may soon be coming to your city and you may be on my hit list.

In fact, it’s happening this weekend. For our reunion, we’re not staying in a hotel or at a resort. We’re staying at our friend’s home in the Philadelphia area. I don’t expect to get the surgeon general’s recommended hours of sleep or really much sleep at all. And I already know I won’t be taking many calls (sorry, Mom) because I’ll be with friends. That’s a good kind of busy.

Want to have Ryan speak at your event? For speaking engagements or media inquiries, please contact Ryan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Calm and Craft On
Resident led event at The Stories

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

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

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

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

Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

An Antidote to Social Isolation and Loneliness

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

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

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

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

Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Place in Ascending the Second Mountain

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

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

Tips on Creating Community

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

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

A Transformative Decision

Happiness Curve

The Little Known Happiness Curve

The U-Shaped Happiness Curve

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

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

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

Exhibit A: Global Average Life Satisfaction by Age

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

Not Midlife Crisis so Much as a Midlife Malaise

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

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

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

Exhibit B: Current and Expected Life Satisfaction by Age

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

Surprised by Joy Beyond Midlife

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

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

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

Role of Place and the Happiness Curve

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

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

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

What to Do About It

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

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

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

Where You Live Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Find out more.