Do you know your neighbors? For many people, it can feel easy to bow your head as you walk out the door to your car, or rush into the elevator of your apartment complex, rather than engage with your neighbors. Distancing yourself from those who live near you can become an instinct, one geared towards saving time and energy for work, or family, or the weekend (or so you mutter to yourself, as you rush past Ms. X and Mr. Y with a barely-audible “hi”).

This instinct, though, new research suggests, may be doing you more harm than good. Being a good neighbor (as in, a neighbor who engages with the people around you) is linked to increased satisfaction, according to a study published in the journal City & Community.

The study focused on neighbors in disadvantaged areas and found that while fear, isolation and a lack of social support amplified dissatisfaction, what the study calls “neighboring” decreased it. Neighboring also led to greater engagement in any kind of community.

The study’s results can be applied to anyone feeling dissatisfaction, regardless of neighborhood: Isolation and a lack of social support are pervasive in contemporary society, as is a lack of connection with neighbors. And as we struggle to find a path forward, change will start with engagement in local communities. Neighboring helps to foster both individual satisfaction and engaged, healthy local communities.

But what does it mean to be a good neighbor? If you want to engage, but you’re not sure how, the study’s author, Gregory Sharp, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, offers some good starting points:

Ask a friendly question — and actually wait for the answer

An important feature of neighboring, Sharp explains, is “having frequent conversations with neighbors.” And sincerely asking a question, with the intention of waiting for an answer, is a practical way to turn a rushed, automatic “hi” into a real conversation.

Remind your neighbor that you are happy to share a cup of sugar

Another important feature of neighboring, Sharp says, is “doing favors for one another.” That could be as simple as reminding your neighbor that the good old-fashioned offer of a cup of sugar always stands — or flour, or an egg or two.

The favors you offer could be bigger, as well, like walking a dog for your neighbors if they’ll be out late one day, or helping wash their car. The spirit of the offer will help foster neighboring, increase your feelings of satisfaction and build your sense of community.

Offer to watch your neighbor’s home

“Watching each other’s home makes a difference,” says Sharp. When your neighbor is out of town, offer up the assurance that you’ll keep an eye on their place, or even water their plants and feed their fish. The trust, connection, and mutual reliance this will foster are the epitome of neighboring, and significant tools for fighting feelings of dissatisfaction and isolation.

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  • Nora Battelle

    Multimedia Staff Writer at Thrive

    Nora Battelle is a writer from New York City. Her work has been published on the Awl, the Hairpin, and the LARB blog, and she's written for podcast and film. At Swarthmore College, she studied English and French literature and graduated with Highest Honors. She's fascinated by language, culture, the internet, and all the small choices that can help us thrive.