Social Media envy comes into play again here. Because we’re SO connected via social media, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, creating a sense of jealousy and separation. Instead of actively living our own lives, we’re wishing we were somewhere else, doing something else. We’re losing a sense of mindfulness that’s necessary for human function.
As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Steve Nygren, Founder and CEO of Serenbe.
Steve’s early career was in the hospitality industry and in 1972, he opened the Pleasant Peasant, which was the beginning of a restaurant corporation that grew to 34 restaurants in eight states by the time he departed in 1994. Steve and his wife, Marie, retired to a farm just outside Atlanta with their three daughters and six years later, he became concerned about urban sprawl invading their adopted country paradise.
In 2000, Steve led the effort to create the Chattahoochee Hills Country Alliance to bring together landowners, developers and conservationists to find a mutually agreed upon solution for balanced growth. Through two years of work and public meetings, a land use plan was adopted to preserve 70% of the 40,000 acres on the edge of Atlanta while providing 20% more housing than the traditional suburban sprawl yield.
In 2004, the Nygren’s began development of Serenbe to demonstrate these concepts which interlace agriculture with a range of housing choices mixed with shops, galleries, 5 restaurants and a 27 room Inn located in the historic farm compound that was the original home of the Nygrens. The result is reminiscent of century-old community.
Steve lives in the Serenbe community alongside his three daughters and grandchildren. Daughter Garnie graduated from Cornell and serves as Director of Operations for Serenbe. Daughter Kara graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder and operates Serenbe Camp. Daughter Quinn graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder and is the Brand Manager for Serenbe.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?
Myearly career was in the hospitality industry with Stouffer Hotels. Then in 1972, I opened my first restaurant the Pleasant Peasant, which was the beginning of a corporation that grew to 34 restaurants in eight states by the time I departed in 1994. My wife, Marie, and I retired to a farm just outside Atlanta with our three daughters and six years later, we became concerned about urban sprawl invading our adopted country paradise.
In 2000, I led the effort to bring together landowners, developers and conservationists to find a mutually agreed upon solution for balanced growth and created the Chattahoochee Hills Country Alliance. Through two years of hard work and public meetings, a comprehensive land use plan was adopted to preserve 70% of the 40,000 acres on the edge of Atlanta while providing 20% more housing than the traditional yield we see in suburban sprawl.
In 2004, we began development of Serenbe to demonstrate these concepts of interlacing preserved land, such as farms, fields and forests, with a densely built mix of housing choices including retail and commercial. Fifteen years later we have over 30 shops, art galleries, 5 restaurants and a bustling destination Inn located on that historic farm compound that was our original home in the country. The result is reminiscent of century-old communities modeled on English villages.
I now live and work in the Serenbe community alongside my three daughters, their spouses and my grandchildren.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I think being at the right place and being prepared are both important aspects of my career. I was working in a restaurant over the summer as a busboy when the maitre d called out sick and the manager asked if anyone could sub in but they needed to have a suit. I raised my hand and I was bitten by the hospitality bug.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
After we had sold the first lots, before anyone had moved in, I used to walk naked down a remote stream because it was the best way to get around prickly blackberry bushes. This quickly developed into a habit during my seven years in retirement exploring our property. Lesson learned — now that we’ve opened our private land to share with other people, I need to start wearing clothes on my explorations.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently developing our third neighborhood within Serenbe that has a commercial focus on health and wellness services. Here, you’ll find a medicinal garden, swim club, gym and spin studio, as well as an entire Class A building dedicated to healthcare — with an acupuncturist, yoga studio, nutritionist, kinesiologist, spa with infrared sauna, and a veg-forward restaurant, Halsa. We’re focusing on preventative healthcare, providing access for residents and visitors to utilize these amenities to create a more well-lived life. We see the dysfunction in the healthcare system that is mainly focuses on fixing you once you’re ill, we want to flip the conversation and look at preventative based on living a vital life.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
Before moving out to the country, retiring and living a more natural lifestyle, my family and I had everything money could buy while living in Atlanta. We had the house, the pool, I served on multiple boards and we were going to all these fancy parties and fundraisers. We thought we had it all, until we decided to step off the treadmill, reconnect with nature, ourselves, and each other. In doing this, we experienced a real value shift, one that made us realize exactly how disconnected we were from each other. By spending time in nature, growing our own food, and taking the time to really “be”, we discovered how important it is to not only know but to talk to your neighbors. The term “biophilia” encompasses this connection, as it refers to humans’ innate tendency to seek connection with all living systems. I believe the loneliness epidemic is continuing due to a lack of biophilia in our lives and especially in placemaking.
For these reasons, we’ve developed Serenbe using biophilic principles. Here, houses are clustered, pulled right up to the sidewalks, have large front porches, and mailboxes are centralized, all to promote connecting with your neighbors. Garages and large front lawns are discouraged, so sidewalks don’t have to be broken and you can easily chat with someone as they walk by. Commercial and residential centers are built next to one another, and the streets are built in omega shapes, allowing a city center out your front door and nature out your back door. The clustered building allows 20% more houses while utilizing only 30% of the land, creating a balance between the built and natural environments.
Developing with nature and people in mind rather than the automobile can shift how we build places, thus providing a more connected, natural environment, aiding in a more well-lived, connected lifestyle and less isolation and loneliness.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
1. Loneliness increases anxiety and depression, pushing people towards a reliant on pharmaceuticals that can lead to unintended side effects, addiction and other long-term health problems.
2. Feeling isolated could prevent one from going outdoors. Whether in an urban or rural setting, it’s important for humans to exercise, get fresh air and interact with other people, so if you’re depressed and feel isolated, you may not feel motivated to take a walk or make plans with friends. This only adds to anxiety and depression, which could lead to other health problems.
3. Social media envy can derive from feeling lonely, increasing anxiety and chances of self-harm. People can feel isolated from seeing other people’s social media adventures, questioning what they’re doing differently or “wrong” to not be in the same place as that person.
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?
If everyone is feeling alone and isolated, we aren’t working together as a high-functioning society. We’re angry, judgmental, self-centered, and feel the need to put people and things in “boxes”, thus causing controversy across all aspects, making the world feel binary. People don’t feel compelled to know their neighbors or appreciate real-life interactions, which inherently affects our ability to effectively communicate, thus hindering our ability to perform together as a society.
The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.
1. Social Media envy comes into play again here. Because we’re SO connected via social media, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, creating a sense of jealousy and separation. Instead of actively living our own lives, we’re wishing we were somewhere else, doing something else. We’re losing a sense of mindfulness that’s necessary for human function.
2. Since we’re constantly communicating digitally, we’re losing the ability to communicate in real life, face to face. We’re incredibly distracted and not living in the present moment. One of the most surprising things I hear visitors say about Serenbe is questioning why everyone waves at strangers. How sad is it that a simple smile and wave is surprising to people? This should be natural everywhere.
3. The way we have built places over the past 70 years. We have built neighborhoods without sidewalks and without any places to go outside of an underutilized club house. Homes are set away from the street with huge lawns disconnecting us from our neighbors. We drive into our garages connected to our homes that are upscale jail cells we never leave because we have everything, we would ever need from our cappuccino machines, personal gyms to our media rooms as well as our fenced backyards to keep everyone out.
Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.
1. Live in a walkable community. Get out and see your neighbors.
2. Know your neighbors. Make an effort to know those you live near/around.
3. Connect with nature. Studies have shown how connecting with nature increases cognitive function, lowers anxiety levels and improves self-awareness, increasing your ability to connect with yourself, thus increasing your ability to connect with other people.
4. Become civically engaged. Look around your “backyard” and see what needs to be done, see how you can be part of the solution and along the way you’ll find other people to engage.
5. Wave and say hello, even to strangers. Something as simple as this can turn someone’s day around, and I’ve seen firsthand how effective this can be.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Connect with nature, even if it’s just the sidewalk tree outside your house, get outside and take a walk because we need a biophilic movement.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
My first thought is Melinda Gates because she has the three C’s: compassion, capacity and commitment.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Linkedin is the best place, you can also find me on Twitter and Facebook.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!