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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.

The Opposite of Loneliness

The English language has its limitations. For example, take the word ‘love’. The English language uses one word which the Greeks needed seven words – ranging from eros (sexual love) to philia (friendship love) to agape (love of stranger) – to accurately describe.

A similar example is with the opposite of loneliness. Merriam-Webster defines lonely as “being without company”, “cut off from others”, “sad from being alone” or “producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation”.  According to the late researcher on loneliness and pioneer of social neuroscience, Dr. John Cacioppo, English doesn’t offer an adequate antonym. He suggested the closest proxy was “normal”, although that is clearly not a satisfactory solution. It’s too all-encompassing. It’s not descriptive enough.

Marina Keegan, a senior at Yale University at the time and captured in her New York Times bestselling posthumous collection of essays and stories The Opposite of Loneliness, didn’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness but she knew that’s what she wanted. She says:

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place. 

It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

Sadly, Keegan didn’t experience the opposite of loneliness in the real world as she died in a car accident just weeks before graduation.

Loneliness is Becoming Normal

Unfortunately, loneliness itself is becoming increasingly normal. Loneliness has doubled since the 1980s and now over 40% of adults report feeling lonely. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the former US Surgeon General, , in his Harvard Business Review cover story indicates that loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.

One the most powerful predictors of loneliness is living alone. This is particularly threatening for older adults as about 1/3 of Americans over 65 live alone and over 50% of women over 75 live alone.

But, of course, people living among others can still feel lonely. In this regard, Dr. Cacippo describes loneliness as “perceived isolation.” The viral video, #EatTogether, by a Canadian grocer illustrates that you can live among plenty of people in an apartment building and still feel disconnected.

This phenomenon is not unique to the United States. The UK has over 9 million people suffering from loneliness. More than a third of older adults report being overwhelmed by loneliness. A whopping 80% of British citizens over 85 live alone.

Japan is perhaps the most challenged with loneliness coupled with the highest percentage – about a 25% — of its citizens 65 or older. Demographics coupled with frayed families and communities have made it particularly difficult according to a recent in-depth article by the New York Times (“A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death”). Sadly some people are even committing crimes to benefit from the social connection in prison.

How Can We Make The Opposite of Loneliness Normal Again

More seems to be known about increasing loneliness than what to do about it. The UK made a PR splash by creating a “Minister of Loneliness” in January. The anticipated focus of this ministry is to (a) create practices and programs that cultivate conversation, friendship and empathy: the founding of community allotments where solitary folks might gather, and (b) instigate knock-on-door initiatives, with volunteers targeting lonely souls. But it is an open debate as to whether we can institutionalize the elimination of loneliness.

Dr. Cacioppo’s research tested a number of methods and tactics, including many that did not demonstrate positive success. One successful tactic is to change how lonely people think about other people, having them understand what happens when their brain goes into self-preservation mode. Dr. Cacioppo’s research suggests that treating it like a disease is difficult because social connection requires a two-way relationship with others.

One simple yet significant approach is to more commonly practice kindness. Lonely people need an especially heavy dose of kindness. If more people were able to identify those lonely around us and choose to act kindly, say by an empathetic cashier to a lonely shopper at check-out, it would certainly help.

The Important Role of Where You Live

What is probably not mentioned enough in these conversations is the role of where we live in the context of loneliness. Living alone is a driver of loneliness. Fortunately, there are emerging, alternative housing models that help facilitate interaction and connection. For example, co-housing, a communal living approach that integrates shared spaces and a common house for community meals, is a popular housing option in Denmark with some successes in the US and has demonstrated to improve social connection, particularly across generations. EngAGE is an organization that integrates a whole person approach to creative living providing college-level programs in the arts, wellness and lifelong learning into existing communities.

Living in cities or in more dense suburbs (or “sub-urbs”) offers the prospect of a greater number of interactions with a diverse number of people. Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, points out that technology can be helpful in bringing people together for important face-to-face connection. In her research, she has found that it’s not just close friends that keep people from being lonely; it is also a broader network of connections, in concert with close friendships, that help people thrive.

At Smart Living 360, we believe location, design and an ethos of social connection can go a long way towards helping build sustained social connection. Walkable locations make it easy for people to see others. Accessible, communal spaces designed for formal and informal connection make it easier to get to know your neighbor. In addition, having a culture where social connection is important helps residents self-select to be part of such a community. Our Lifestyle Ambassador is central in our approach as he knows each resident by name and serves as a catalyst for creating community. We have witnessed the positive impact.

The Opposite of Loneliness is Our Responsibility

Technology advances, shifting family dynamics and changing demographics are all conspiring to make loneliness more common. However, as we all become increasingly aware of the risks to our health and well-being, it is important that we make lifestyle decisions to ward off the hazards of loneliness, particularly as we age. Fortunately, new, innovative housing models will make it easier to make embrace the opposite of loneliness as every stage of life.

Why Community Matters

Not All Social Connection is Created Equal

With the recent ten year anniversary of the Apple iPhone, it is remarkable how pervasive smartphones have become. 77% of people in the US own a smartphone, double the percentage from just five years ago. With each new model, these devices are getting faster and more powerful, and more addictive. Critics have highlighted the downsides of smartphones, including its impact on youth. One thing is clear: social media is not the same as face-to-face connection.

Beginning of #EatTogether: Everyone Fixated on Phones

Last year, a Canadian supermarket chain, Loblaws, released a video – #EatTogether – to capture the differences between technology and face-to-face connection. The two minute video captures the isolation of people tethered to their smartphones and devices and flips the script with these same people connecting over a spontaneous meal in the hallway of their apartment building. There is something powerful and natural about sharing a meal with others.

Ending of #EatTogether: People Come Together to Share a Meal

Importance of Face-to-Face Connection

Face-to-face personal connection matters a lot. Research shows that social isolation is worse than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. About 1/3 of us suffer from loneliness. In some ways, women are particularly at risk for loneliness, in part, because women are more likely to be affected by their friends’ feelings of loneliness, as feelings spread more easily within their social networks. Others point out that the biggest threat facing middle aged men is loneliness.

Moreover, trends are broadly discouraging. More people, especially older adults, are living alone – currently ¼ of men and ½ of women 75 years of age or older live alone – and living alone is the most positive predictor of loneliness. In addition, while social media has increased the number of people we communicate with, the number of close friends has decreased from three in 1985 to less than two today.

On the flip side, strong personal connection and sense of community can add up to fifteen years to one’s lifespan. Researchers have found that people with active social lives recover faster after an illness than those who are solitary – MRIs show greater tissue repair. Further, research indicates that people who have had a stroke are better protected from grave complications by a tight, supportive social network than they are by medication.

How We Live and Where We Live Matters

The lifestyle we choose – including where we live – can have a big impact on our sense of community and overall well-being.

There are a number of things we can do. We can work harder to maintain our important friendships, through regular get togethers, reunions, etc. We can also be proactive about making new friends. This can mean joining local civic organizations, book clubs, exercise groups and so on.

We can also choose to live in places that positively impact our sense of community. Walkable neighborhoods and parks (see Smart Growth America for good examples) can help bring people together more often. Conversely, isolated suburban homes where few people know their neighbors is not a recipe for success.

Bethesda Row, Bethesda, MD: An Example of Walkable Mixed-Use Development

Developing a Sense of Community at Smart Living 360

Creating a sense of community is core to the Smart Living 360 philosophy and approach. In fact, connection is one of our three core attributes. We don’t require people to get to know their neighbors but we make it easy. We let prospective residents know that community building is part of our DNA. We have designed common spaces to facilitate small and large gatherings, including a catering kitchen suitable for potlucks and catered meals. Our Lifestyle Ambassador is a key facilitator to bring people together on a regular basis and helps make connection among people in the community.

Exciting things happen when a building becomes a community. People show interest in others’ and learning their personal stories. People start helping each other and invite others to become more involved in their lives. It can become contagious, getting more and more people desiring to be part of the community’s social fabric.

At The Stories, a Smart Living 360 community, residents help tutor French to kids within the community, participate in regular resident-driven get-togethers and celebrate each others’ successes. For example, a long time dream of one resident was to become a policeman. When he was commissioned to the Montgomery County police force last year, residents celebrated around the BBQ to share in his achievement.

Time to Make a Video a Reality

The Eating Together video is compelling. But it’s fiction. Loblaws is trying to change that with the first national Eat Together Day. This is a good start, but we can do ourselves a favor and make eating together a far more regular exercise. Odds are it would help us all live longer, healthier lives.