Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

An Antidote to Social Isolation and Loneliness

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

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

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

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

Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Place in Ascending the Second Mountain

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

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

Tips on Creating Community

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

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

A Transformative Decision

Baseball Instruction

What Will Be Your Legacy?

You Don’t Write Your Legacy

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

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

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

Planning a Legacy is a Relatively New Invention

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

Common Areas of Legacy

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

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

Creating Legacy is Open to All Ages

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

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

Role of Purpose in Health and Extended Longevity

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

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

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

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

Tools Today and On The Horizon

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

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

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

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