A couple of years ago, I was walking through my neighborhood toward my town’s singular coffee shop, a trip I’d made at least a hundred times since moving there three years prior. But this time was different. I was with my mom, who is both a curious observer and an art lover. So when we approached the home with the odd yard sculptures—as I had always thought of it—she was intrigued.
Who was the artist behind these sculptures? Were they for sale? What other art had this person created?
We walked around to the side yard, where we were greeted by an older man in a wheelchair. After a bit of back-and-forth, we discovered this man wasn’t just the artist behind the sculptures—he was Greg DePauw, a renowned artist whose work had been acquired by collectors, corporations, and institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This was one of the most celebrated artists in Central Illinois. A man who, despite overwhelming adversity (Greg was an incomplete quadriplegic, with only some use of his hands and arms), had created, taught, and inspired for decades. And had I not been with my mom that day, I would have never known.
This experience got me thinking:
Why don’t I know my neighbors? How many other fascinating people and stories was I missing out on? And what could I gain by connecting with the people who lived nearby?
As it turns out, there’s more to gain than I had ever imagined.
Read on to discover four reasons why you and I should both make a better effort to get to know our neighbors.
1. You’ll be happier.
As an introvert, I’m naturally skeptical of this alleged benefit. I’d much rather sit with my own thoughts in the comfort of my home than strike up a conversation with a neighbor I barely know. In fact, if you asked me which scenario would make me happier, I’d choose the former every single time.
But psychology research shows that I may not know myself as well as I think. Evidently, humans are lousy at predicting what will ultimately make them happy. And that even though we avoid things that are good for us, like eating healthy and working out, we’re usually glad we did them.
Surprisingly, small talk is one of those good-for-us things we avoid. Contrary to popular belief, studies show setting aside time in your day for a little small talk with people you don’t know—like your neighbor two doors down—ultimately makes your day more enjoyable, even if it feels awkward in the moment.
So the next time you spot your neighbor at their mailbox, don’t pretend you don’t see them like I’ve been known to do. Instead, go say hi! You’ll be glad you did.
2. You’ll be healthier.
A 2011 study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that people who said they knew and trusted their neighbors were more likely to report higher rates of health and well-being than those who said they did not know or trust their neighbors.
Why? Because when you trust the people in your community, you’re more likely to interact with them. And interactions—like stopping to chat on your morning walk or lending a helping hand with yard work—can boost your mood, reduce stress, and instill a sense of belonging. Those benefits, in turn, have been linked to better health, including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, and sleep issues.
Plus, according to a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, a simple ten-minute conversation can have the same cognitive boost as solving a crossword puzzle.
A sharper brain, better z’s, and a healthier heart? Sign me up!
3. You’ll gain a support system.
One of the most obvious upsides to knowing your neighbors is the support system you’ll gain. When you leave town, a trustworthy neighbor can keep an eye on your house, water your plants, and bring in your mail. When you’re in the middle of baking your Thanksgiving pies, a good neighbor can lend you the butter you somehow forgot to purchase. And when you and your spouse need a long-overdue night out, a reliable neighbor can babysit your kids.
But building up a strong support system doesn’t happen overnight. It usually stems from a series of small actions over time. You could share the extra tomatoes from your home garden, invite them over for a drink, shovel their sidewalk after a heavy snow fall, or bring them a pre-cooked meal during a stressful time.
You don’t have to become best friends with your neighbors, but you can offer help, support, and kindness when the opportunity presents itself. And if you do, your neighbor will be way more likely to return the favor when you’re the one in need.
4. You’ll be safer.
Knowing your neighbors is one of the most effective security initiatives you can implement. But why? There’s an anthropological concept called territoriality that provides an explanation.
According to territoriality, a place with a close-knit social network can more easily develop natural community surveillance. Essentially, when you and your neighbors share friendly interactions, looking out for each other becomes second nature. That’s because, on some level, you each view the entire neighborhood as yours. What’s more, according to urban theorist Jane Jacobs, “a place that is continuously controlled by its own residents, who share a sense of community, can be more effective than police enforcement.”
So get to know your neighbors and become familiar with their routines. Take note if you observe unusual activity. Notify a neighbor if you’re leaving town. And spend more time outside. But remember, the goal isn’t to watch your neighbors (because let’s be honest, that’s a tad creepy), but to actually see your neighbors and become a part of their lives.
Do you know your neighbors?
According to a 2015 report from City Observatory, an urban policy think tank, 30% of Americans say they have never interacted with their neighbor. And up until two years ago, I was a part of that 30%. But since meeting artist Greg DePauw, I’ve started to make more of an effort. I’m now more likely to wave hello when I pass neighbors on my evening runs and I’ve even gone so far as to invite a neighbor over for a cocktail. And now that I understand the overwhelming benefits connecting with my neighbors can provide, I plan to make an even greater effort.
What about you? Do you know your neighbors? If so, how do you build and maintain connections? Let us know in the comments!