This past year, as we’ve spent more time at home, our neighborhoods have become more important and relevant than ever. Whether we’re shopping at local businesses, running errands for neighbors, applauding health care workers or sharing remote-learning tips with parents, many of us have become more acquainted with and dependent on those around us.
Now there’s scientific evidence that knowing our neighbors is linked to better health: According to a global study conducted by a team of top loneliness experts, knowing as few as six neighbors reduces the likelihood of feeling lonely and is linked to lower depression, social anxiety, and financial concerns—even those related to COVID-19.
The study addressed the impact of the Nextdoor KIND Challenge, where participants performed small acts of kindness in their communities. The acts ranged from checking in on neighbors, to providing helpful information, to more tangible support like mowing a neighbor’s lawn or delivering groceries. While 1 in 10 participants said they experienced feelings of loneliness at the start of the study, the number was reduced to 1 in 20 after the study was completed. This outcome is particularly remarkable because participants reduced their risk with relatively small, simple steps.
The findings come at a time when loneliness and social isolation, already major public health concerns, may be on the rise. According to a recent report from the Ad Council, 36% of participants said they regularly experience at least one of the contributing factors of loneliness (feeling alone and/or physical or
social isolation). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number jumped to 44%. On top of a substantial uptick in calls to mental health hotlines and devastating estimates for the number of suicides connected to unemployment spikes, our desire to come together has laid the groundwork we’ll need to fight a social recession within our communities.
While 63% of Nextdoor members thought it was important to be “plugged in” to a community before COVID-19 hit, that number has since increased to 82%. An upswing in overall neighborliness holds a silver lining that building stronger communities and neighborhoods will be part of our recovery plans. In his recent book Together, former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy echoes this sentiment, even writing that prioritizing our connections with others is as important as our need for vaccines and ventilators for global rehabilitation.
Research supports that simply knowing you can count on others for support lowers the body’s response to stress and increases your odds of survival by 35%. Strong social connections can reduce our risk for premature mortality at higher rates than exercise or the flu vaccine. If you’ve given or received support from others during this time, you’ve reaped powerful health benefits from these seemingly small acts. Even through casual connections with neighbors, our mail person, or local shopkeepers, social interaction can make us happier, bolster our immunity, and add years to our lives.
“It’s in moments of crisis that we find out who we really are,” Dr. Murthy shared with us. “During 9/11, we saw the generosity and compassion of people come forth. During this pandemic, we’ve seen so many people demonstrate their kindness, generosity, and commitment to others. We see it among neighbors. That, to me, is a beautiful, poignant reminder of who we really are. I hope we’ll allow the lessons of COVID-19 to stick.”
This is especially important to keep in mind during the winter months, as many are unable to see loved ones and may experience heightened feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Reach out to neighbors who may be vulnerable, and recognize the power in small, meaningful connections.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve pulled together to help local businesses succeed, share resources, assist our neighbors and fight for racial equality and social change. As focused as we’ve been on fixing our public health crisis and its economic effects, we should also continue to live these lessons of community and compassion.
That means following our instinct to neighbor. It means continuing to check in on those who may be vulnerable. It means leaving up signs of encouragement in our windows, on sidewalks, and on social media. By emphasizing the importance of kindness, community, and human connection, we’ll make our neighborhoods stronger—and healthier. Together.
Sarah Friar is CEO of Nextdoor, the neighborhood app where neighbors come together for trusted connections and the exchange of helpful information, goods and services. Nextdoor’s purpose is to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University where she runs the Social Connections and Health Research Laboratory. Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s research is focused on the long-term health effects of social connection. Her work has been seminal in the recognition of social isolation and loneliness as risk factors for early mortality.