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From the floral print couch on her front porch, the old woman next door watched my father and me haul the last of my belongings into my new apartment on the first floor of a red triple-decker in Dorchester. My father pointed her out to me through the living room window. “Be nice to that lady,” he said. “She’ll look out for your place.”
It sounded odd to me — why would a stranger look out for my place? Especially here in Dorchester, which, as Dad himself had made sure to warn me, had a reputation for violent crime and burglary. Besides, it wasn’t like we were close to our neighbors back in Chelmsford. This neighborhood was much more diverse than my mostly white, middle-class town. I was sure I’d be seen as an outsider.
But I heeded my dad’s advice. Every morning on my way to the T, I greeted my neighbor with a shy hello. No matter what she was doing — chatting with the mustachioed man who lived in the house on the other side of hers, taking out the trash, tending her flowers — she would respond with a smile and a wave. We never exchanged more than a word or two but I grew to cherish this interaction. When winter came and she stopped hanging out on her stoop, I missed her, though I didn’t know her name.
Dad was smarter than I gave him credit for. Just by saying hello, I was contributing to what sociologists call social cohesion, and Mister Rogers would have called a neighborhood. It’s the idea that a community benefits when its members actively trust, include, and cooperate with one another. Of course, in order to do that, they have to engage with each other. In 1974, 30 percent of Americans spent time with their neighbors more than once a week, and just over 20 percent never spent time with their neighbors. Two generations later, things have flipped; almost 35 percent of us never spend time with neighbors, while less than 20 percent do so more than once a week.
What does that withdrawal cost us as a society? There isn’t a formula that says three-hellos-and-a-wave equals 10 percent less polarization. But being less engaged with the people who live around us seems connected to a steady decline in our feelings that people can be trusted in general. In the mid 1980s, about half of us said we trusted others; now it’s about 3 in 10. That seems strange, given that the national crime rate is less than half what it was at its peak in 1991. Even after a slight increase in violent crime in the last two years, crime remains much lower than it was a generation ago.
As individuals, lack of trust in our neighbors might be bad for our physical health. Eileen Avery, a University of Missouri sociologist, found in one study that people who perceive their neighbors as trustworthy also rate their own health as better than those who don’t. Other studies have found people who say they are part of a community have lower risks for strokes and heart attacks.
Despite our increased digital connectivity with others via Facebook, FaceTime, texting, and other social media, studies show that loneliness rates have doubled since the 1980s, from 20 percent to 40 percent. Perhaps neighborliness could be an untapped solution to the problem. Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has found that “peripheral” face-to-face relationships — those with acquaintances — contribute to our well-being. In one of her studies, people who treated a barista as an acquaintance — smiling and making eye contact, having a brief conversation — experienced a higher level of positive emotions than those who avoided such interactions.
It seems that even an occasional friendly real-world interaction can increase a sense of community. “People don’t need to be best friends with their neighbors,” says Avery, “but there should be some level of interaction. Oftentimes, it could be just once a year.”
When spring rolled around, the woman next door returned to her floral throne and I, too, became a stoop-sitter. We continued our smiling and waving. But I also started greeting her neighbor with the mustache and the man who sells flowers at the intersection. I chatted about the weather with the twins whose apartment shared a porch with mine, and are close to my age. I saw the college boys who lived upstairs enough that when they asked if they could borrow my laundry basket, I said yes. Sometimes, the twins complimented my shoes. The boys upstairs helped me carry in my groceries. I don’t know if my health was any better, but I enjoyed feeling like part of the neighborhood. Still, I didn’t know any of their names, nor they mine.
Then, as I sat on the stoop on a sweltering June day, one of the boys asked if he could sit with me while he waited for his girlfriend. “I’m Pablo,” he said, smiling as he took a seat. “You’re our downstairs neighbor, right?”Meaghan McDonough is a writer now living in Chelmsford. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.
This story has been updated to correct the first name of a research scientist who is quoted. Her name is Elizabeth Dunn. It has also been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of the writer’s first name, Meaghan.