We Don’t Know Our Neighbors Anymore . . . But We Should

Photo by Skitterphoto

Have you ever talked to your neighbors? If you have, how well do you know them? Do you feel like you could turn to them if you needed help? Do you feel like you are a support to them? Most Americans do not know most, if not all, of their neighbors, and half of Americans do not trust their neighbors, especially millennials. This has changed from the past, where just 50 years ago roughly 61% of us would have monthly social nights with neighbors, but now that has changed to just 46%. But why does this matter? Do we even need our neighbors?

The answer is yes. In today’s world, our sense of community has declined and has left us socially isolated from one another. This may be especially true for poorer communities, who are especially impacted by not having community supports to rely on. Robert Putnam, author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis argues that “If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children isn’t good. . .And most Americans don’t have the resources . . . to replace collective provision with private provision.” This lack of both collective and private resources is especially troublesome given the widening gap between the rich and poor. Additionally, social isolation could be contributing to less satisfying marriages, where we expect more from our partners that we cannot get through interaction with others. And according to some sources, this isolation can even significantly increase one’s risk of death. Researchers and scholars are not the only ones talking about America’s isolation problem, though. One can find recent news headlines discussing How Social Isolation Is Killing Us or Why A City Block Can Be One of the Loneliest Places on Earth, the last title of which hints at why more social interactions with neighbors may be especially important.

I argue below how consistent get-togethers with neighbors, such as monthly block or complex get-togethers, would help this isolation we’ve come to hold onto as Americans. Neighborhood get-togethers would help to create environments that help us to thrive, increase and foster relationships that are central to health and well-being, and help others in our community to not be as isolated, which in turn still helps ourselves.

Creating an Environment to Help You Thrive

Regular interactions and check-ins with our neighbors can help to create a community around us that provides a sense of support, boosts our personal development, and brings numerous other benefits. A social initiative in South Carolina, called Strong Communities, sent outreach workers to build neighbor-to-neighbor support in various neighborhoods, and residents later reported increased social support, increased help from others, and a stronger sense of both community and personal ability in accomplishing tasks. These feelings of independence, positive relationships, and community participation are all important parts of psychological well-being, according to research.

Your well-being is also impacted by your environment in general, and, according to famous theorists such as Urie Bronfenbrenner, all of the environments you’re a part of (your neighborhood, your family life, your work life, your country, etc.) all influence each other and their impact on you, just as you influence them. So, improving an environment that is currently not beneficial, such as your neighborhood environment, could potentially improve other areas of your life. For example, if you are a parent, your relationship with your spouse or family could improve by having more support with raising your kids and having others who are looking out for them. This could help to relieve pressure that creates negative stress within the family. Bronfenbrenner also suggests these interactions we have between ourselves and the environment help to push our own personal development. Interactions with our neighbors could help us grow in positive ways, both through how they might influence us and how we might influence them (the latter of which helps to indicate how helping others also helps ourselves, which I will touch on more below).

Neighborhood get-togethers would also help to create a more positive environment by increasing our sense of safety and belonging, which are two important needs we all share. Neighbors can be a support in noticing any unusual activity, such as someone sneaking around your home. Strong neighborhood social ties are also likely to increase our sense of social control, and this sense of collective ability is shown to be linked to reduced neighborhood violence. This need for safety is especially important in lower-income neighborhoods and for minorities that feel the pressure of a social system that frequently works against them. In lower-income neighborhoods, stronger relationships with neighbors can also help to buffer the impact of stressful and negative neighborhood environments on mental health. The fact that these relationships can have such a powerful, protective effect, along with the natural need for belonging, starts to show why other people matter and why they are so central to our well-being.

Fostering Important Relationships

Researchers, theorists, and philosophers throughout time have argued the importance of having strong relationships with others around us, from Aristotle’s emphasis on friendship to today’s theories on needs for belonging, attachment, and human interaction. As the field of positive psychology has grown, a field that supplements traditional psychology by studying how people thrive, researchers have emphasized more and more how much other people matter for our health and well-being. For example, more social support has been found to lower the risk of both disease and death, it reduces chances of readmittance into the hospital for disease, and it is linked to lower blood pressure. Positive relationships with others are also essential for our mental/emotional health; They consistently have the strongest ties to happiness and well-being and are also linked to less sadness, less loneliness, and fewer problems with self-esteem, eating, and sleeping. This makes the increase in Americans’ isolation that much scarier. Increasing and fostering our relationships with our neighbors would be an important contribution to our own well-being and the well-being of those around us.

Helping Others (Which Still Helps You)

Interactions with others is a two-way street. You’re not only benefitting yourself by getting to know your neighbors, but you may also be helping your neighbors in the process (which further helps your own health and well-being). Dr. Gary Melton, Associate Director of Community Development and Social Policy at the Kempe Center for Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect and leader of the Strong Communities program in South Carolina, has argued how many families are fragile and alone, especially in trying to raise children in current society, and how “[such] vulnerability is likely to continue to increase in the face of growing isolation and decreasing resources. . .help from people of good-will still can enable families to survive and sometimes even thrive amid seemingly unbearable circumstances.” As mentioned earlier, support from others can help to create an environment that helps you thrive, but it can also serve to help others. Melton adds that “[to] make such assistance easily available and maximally useful, the settings of everyday life — the places where people live, work, study, worship, and play — must be organized in ways that facilitate ongoing relationships.” In other words, the more we consistently build relationships in all aspects of our lives, especially in our lonely and isolating neighborhoods, the more we can help each other to both survive and thrive. Melton’s Strong Communities program is based around the 1993 government recommendation that neighbors helping neighbors is one of the best ways to increase safety for kids and prevent child abuse. This is especially important for those in low-income communities, where safety is valued even more. In surveying residents of the Strong Communities initiative and gathering data on crime, Melton found that residents saw increased frequency of positive parental behavior and decreased neglect by parents. The data also showed decreases in parental physical assault.

Those who study positive development in adolescents would likely not be surprised by these findings. Dr. Peter Benson, for example, a late leader in positive youth development, created a list of resources based off years of research that are ideal for adolescents to survive and thrive. This list of “developmental assets” includes various contexts and people, such as neighbors and schools, that can help to give extra support in their developing lives. The more resources these kids in our communities have, the better.

Kids aren’t the only ones who would be helped. Older adults can be especially isolated due to mobility issues and/or loss of friends and family over time, and this can be particularly damaging for their health. Research has shown, for example, that more perceived support from neighbors in older adults is tied to more functional ability, especially for those that don’t have family members to rely on.

Helping others in the community just by being a good neighbor can circle back around and help you, too. Melton, among others, state that connections with others is important for building meaning in your life. Volunteers from the Strong Communities program, for example, “often experienced and modeled personal transformations, as their experience in a lofty level of service affirmed the communities’ possibilities.” This personal growth and meaning are both important for well-being, based on research. Research also shows that helping others is tied to better health and can give a “helper’s high”. Similar to a runner’s high, a helper’s high gives positive feelings of increased energy and warmth with lowered feelings of stress. So, through helping others, your own health improves, your positive emotions improve, and you reduce your own stress. Research even shows that those who give more support also tend to receive more support. Increased interaction with our neighbors sounds like a win-win situation all around.

Frequent and consistent neighborhood gatherings, such as block or complex parties, could benefit us in a lot of ways. They would create more positive environments that help us to flourish, they would increase the number of positive relationships that are so crucial to our well-being, and they would help others in our community, which would further foster our own well-being. Are neighborhood get-togethers a good idea for everyone? For the most part, it seems the research is clear that, yes, everyone could benefit from more frequent neighbor interactions. However, you might still need to think about what makes sense for your neighborhood and your family. Some research does show that some adolescents in high-poverty neighborhoods, for example, are more likely to value independence over community and would try to move away from family and community gatherings for their own well-being. Assessing what is right for you or your family is still important to consider. If you feel you want to try to get to know your neighbors, get out there and reach out! Not only will you feel good, your neighbors will likely appreciate it, too.

Read about how to strengthen your neighborhood bond.

Ann has an MA in Positive Health Psychology and is passionate about spreading helpful, evidence-based information on health and wellbeing to the general public.

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