Nation’s health may depend on people getting to know each other

by Lynn Schmidt

Our country is in a very dark place at the moment. But I have hope, because the answers are all around us. They live around us. For thousands of years wise people have been extolling the virtues of loving your neighbor. Now is the perfect time to get out and do just that.

The word neighbor appears over a hundred times in the Bible. More specifically, the Bible tells us to love our neighbor. A Chinese proverb teaches that a good neighbor is a found treasure. A Welsh proverb says “A little among neighbors is worth more than riches in a wilderness.” Finally and perhaps most notably is the wisdom of Mister Rogers: “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors — in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”

I was reminded of the value of good neighbors during the recent floods. A part of our property was impacted by flood waters. My husband was working out of town and without hesitation, I called one of my neighbors and asked for help. He immediately came over and offered his assistance. I not only thanked him, I texted and thanked his wife. She responded, “Of course. That is what neighbors are for.”

Unfortunately, not enough Americans can share in that neighborly experience like I did. Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2018 on how Americans interact with their neighbors. In the poll, 57% of respondents said they know only some or none of their neighbors. That share climbed to 72% among 30- to 49-year-olds and 78% among 18- to 29-year-olds. Four out of 10 rural residents said they know all or most of their neighbors. The shares were smaller among those living in urban (24%) and suburban (28%) areas. Nearly two-thirds said they know their neighbors but don’t spend time chatting or hanging out with them.

Knowing and loving your neighbors can have real benefits. Strong neighborhoods can make residents healthier, both physically and mentally, happier, safer, less lonely, and increase longevity. They also can provide access to more information and resources.

Studies have shown that cohesive or tight-knit neighborhoods have lower rates of gun violence, and fewer lives are lost in tragedies, including natural disasters. Older adults who know their neighbors report a far higher sense of psychological wellbeing. Social connections can also have a profound effect on physical health. According to a 2011 study at the University of Missouri, people who perceived their neighbors as trustworthy were more likely to report higher rates of health and well-being than those who said they did not know or trust their neighbors. A more recent 2014 study by the University of Michigan found that close community ties reduced heart attack risk for people over 50.

There are ways people can get to know the people who live around them. It starts with a simple introduction and a commitment to memory of the neighbor’s name. Every encounter outside is an opportunity to greet the neighbor, even if it’s just a wave. There’s always time to stop and talk or offer a helping hand. Even if the neighbor doesn’t accept the offer, the willingness to help may have a beneficial impact.

It may feel awkward making yourself vulnerable, but asking for help is an excellent way to get to know someone and make that person comfortable asking for assistance later.

The bottom line is to step outside and give neighborliness a chance to thrive. It is good for you, it is good for them, and it might just be good for our country.

Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and editorial board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.