We give up on a lot by not knowing our neighbors. The loss is especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic and its social distancing rules. While some of us cannot get out of our homes or are not allowed to do so, our neighbors can help us in many ways.
This period is thus an opportunity to know our neighbors better and enjoy the social support we have right under our noses (and sometimes above them, at the upper floor…). In such times, we often discover the wonderful people that surround us — people we hardly noticed until now because we were too busy in “going out.” Now, it is an opportunity to create new friendships with these wonderful people. These friendships have the potential to last long after this horrible pandemic will be behind us.
Why knowing your neighbor is so important
A remarkable study from 1976 — perhaps the heyday of suburban neighborly friendships in the US — gives us some insight into how and why relationships with our neighbors can be so good for us. Data from 409 widows aged 65-85 were analyzed to find predictors of social wellbeing.
Surprisingly to scientists at the time, results showed that contact with nuclear family members — even one’s own children — had little to no impact on feelings of well-being or morale. Meanwhile, friendships, especially those with neighbors, predicted lower levels of loneliness and worry, feelings of "usefulness," and self-perceived respect within the community.
The study suggests that acquaintance and friendship with neighbors are more effective at increasing well-being since they are based on proximity, common interests, and lifestyle choice. The friendships and neighborhood relationships are also developed voluntarily. Family ties, on the other hand, are often characterized by a sense of obligation, physical distance, and personal dissonances. Later studies confirm the importance of close friendships (over family relationships) for over-65s, highlighting the particular importance of frequent contact.
More recent studies show that neighborly support is associated with better well-being for individuals in mid-to-late-life. Data regarding neighborly relationships and general well-being from 1,071 adults aged 40-70 from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the US was collected in 1995, and again from the same individuals in 2005.
The study found that those who had low contact with neighbors at the time of both samples, as well as those who experienced a reduction in contact with neighbors over the years, experienced downward trends in well-being, as indicated by feelings of sadness, nervousness, restlessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.
It is key to note here the difference between friendship and "neighboring," or relationships with neighbors. While friendships are based on commonalities and mutual affection, neighboring, at its core is an instrumental relationship that is catalyzed by proximity.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Where neighbors are also close friends, the potential benefits are clear. While both friendship and neighboring are beneficial for well-being, they are most effective when the types of support and assistance from both coincide.
Why singles benefit the most from knowing their neighbors
A glaring omission from studies on neighborly relations is the role that marital status might play in the relationships between friendship, neighboring, and general well-being. When we find such studies, they are often biased towards investigating the elderly. The assumption they all make, in one way or another, is that improving the well-being and reducing loneliness for the elderly is important since they are perceived as "at risk."
While this is true and indeed a valiant direction of inquiry, it ignores the fact that adults of all ages likely benefit from neighboring. Moreover, and relevant here, it does not take into account that individuals who do not have the support of a live-in partner may be especially able to benefit from neighborly relationships.
In fact, and in light of the technology-driven move away from neighboring and relationships with our neighborhoods, there is growing interest in research on how neighborhood context can impact mental health and overall well-being. Indeed, neighboring is an efficient way of achieving social support, sharing resources, and creating a sense of security.
Whereas many assume that a romantic relationship may be the best way to achieve this type of support and well-being, research shows that being close with your neighbors could be an important complementary strategy, especially for single people. The satisfaction singles derive from their social circles is greater than the satisfaction couples derive from their social surroundings.
Therefore, if one good thing comes out of this horrible pandemic, it's the awareness of the wonderful people around us, literally. People who live so close by, yet were far apart. Now it is time to know your neighbors. Say hi from your balcony, meet downstairs, or wave from the corridor. You’d be surprised how nice they are. Try it out.