Happiness: Why Co-Living Might be the New Medicine
7 minute read
Here’s the deal. We are living in the most isolated time in human history. Have you noticed? Most of us don’t even know our neighbors’ names, let alone how their day went. The rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. And the former US Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy even called loneliness a “public health crisis.”
But it hasn’t always been this way. Sebastian Junger, author of Tribe, writes, “Early humans would most likely have lived in nomadic bands of around 50 people…They would have almost never been alone.” Of course, with the development of agriculture and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, two big things shifted for us as humans. We had more stuff. And we could take care of ourselves. Fast forward to 2019. Suddenly, depression is a serious epidemic, we spend a majority of our time with technology, and we can go an entire day (or more) without seeing someone we know.
So what’s the answer? Well, It could be co-living, a new type of apartment that lets you share common spaces, kitchens, dinners and conversation with people outside your nuclear family. Prophet Walker, cofounder of LA’s Treehouse Co-Living says, “We wanted to create something that supported people in coming together and build those deeper connections for themselves.” And he just might be onto something. Here are 9 reasons why:
1. Community makes us happier.
The number of interactions we have in just one day can actually predict our overall sense of happiness. Most of us already know we feel nice after brunching with friends. But one study put it to the test. And on the days people interacted many times with others, they reported feeling happier and more content. And in a shared living setup, what are the chances of interacting with people? Pretty darn high.
2. It’s good for our health.
The science is in. And it shows when we connect with people, we reduce the risk of depression and heart disease. One Harvard study followed 724 men for 79 years (starting in 1938) and showed that close relationships can actually “buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.” According to Robert Waldinger, the Harvard professor who conducted the study, the people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were ultimately the healthiest at age 80.
3. In fact, it could even make us live longer.
We hear a lot about the benefits of olive oil or leafy greens or the next big superfood that promises extend our time on earth. But in his book Blue Zones, Dan Buettner discovered the world’s longest living people all have one thing in common — close friends and strong social networks. Waldinger adds, “It turns out people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier. They’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.” Yes, diet and exercise are important. We know that one. But as Waldinger says, “Tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
4. It works even if they’re not our best friends.
As Art Markman, author of Smart Thinking, writes, “Interestingly, even our interactions with people we don’t know that well give us a sense that we are part of that larger community.” (Think baristas. Think Uber drivers. Think a quick chat with your neighborhood mailman.) Even if these people aren’t our besties, interacting with them can increase our happiness. Not only is that some pretty incredible news, but it’s also simple, actionable way to boost serotonin. Just chat with people. Or even better, enjoy a glass of wine with your co-living flatmate, catch-up in the kitchen, or help set-up a giant family-style dinner with the people on your floor.
5. Community makes us kinder.
Shared living, by nature, forces us to be more thoughtful towards others. Think about it. You can’t share a functional kitchen, if you’re not a little bit considerate. You can’t share a home with all types of people and not learn to put yourself — even a tiny bit — in their shoes. In her TED talk, architect Grace Kim says, “When you eat together, you share more things. You lend out your power tools.” It’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in our own stresses and daily tasks. Of course, co-living doesn’t mean we have to become nudists and hippies. But it could mean that we accidentally become a little kinder.
6. And being kind makes us happier too.
And guess what. When we’re kind, we feel all gooey inside. A study in the Journal of Social Psychology showed when people heard they’d be giving to charity, the pleasure parts of their brains lit up. Other studies have shown the same results when people cooperate together or lend support. That’s right. The same dopamine system linked to addiction also makes us feel pleasure when we’re helpful or generous to others. Who knew? Acting kind is its own form of addiction. These are systems put in place to trick us into becoming more social and more compassionate. Frankly, our bodies want us to be kinder, because it means we’re creating deeper, safer networks of friends. So imagine all the happy-pleasure-brain-drugs waiting for you in a co-living space.
7. Nice Friends Make us Nicer People.
Let’s be real. Statistically, if we have friends who smoke, we probably smoke too. If we have friends who carry rose quartz crystals in their pockets, we probably do too. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn took these studies a step further. He said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” So here’s the question: If you want to be kind, if you want our days to have meaning, if you want our actions to reflect a bigger purpose, then who do you know who’s also living that way? Who do you know who’s kind? And maybe co-living is the place to find them. That’s because the types of people who choose to share their lives are often pursuing the same sense of community and kindness that we are. Often they’re just plain old nice folks. And as we’ve learned, that kindness can really rub off.
8. It Makes us More Intentional About our Relationships.
For some of us, the idea of cooking dinner or binging Netflix among people we just met makes us cringe. Sure, like any living arrangement, a little bit of work is involved. But maybe that’s the secret to unlocking a deeper connection with others. When our spouse does something that irritates us or even bumps against our own moral compass, do we bury it? Do we passively write post-it notes on the fridge? Nope. We speak up (hopefully). That’s because we’re building an intentional relationship with this person. And we know, despite a little tension, it’s always better in the long run to work it out now. Often, with friends we see once a month, we avoid harder conversations. We let little things slide. But sharing a home with people means we put the time in. It means those relationships become more conscious, more intentional, and maybe even stronger than any others we have.
9. It helps us belong.
As we move, change jobs or step into new life phases, finding that tight-knit group of friends is harder and harder to come by. Unlike our parents, who mostly stayed in the same place for longer periods of time, we’re having to be more conscious about building our own social networks. We’re using apps like Meetup.com or Bumble for Friends. But if we’re looking for the shortest step between point A and point B, it could be time to make the leap to co-living.
Sebastian Junger writes, “As humans, we think of ourselves as extremely advanced species, but we have psychological needs, emotional needs, that are only served by a group. And so we search for belonging because we’re wired to, because it’s an adaptation that leads to survival. And when we don’t have it, things begin to go dangerously wrong.”
So there it is. The final reason co-living could be the new medicine: Belonging. Yes, there’s a chance we can survive without it. But we definitely cannot thrive. As Prophet Walker, cofounder of Treehouse, explains, “It’s more than just meeting new people. It’s more than all the supper clubs and community events. At the end of the day, this is about belonging somewhere.” And here in 2019, we just might have to make some radical moves to create that for ourselves.
Learn more about a new kind way of living
Social capital: A review of the literature, Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2001)
Maisel, N.C. & Gable, S.L. (2009) For richer…in good times…and in health: positive processes in relationships. In S.J. Lopez & C.
Bacon, N., Brophy, M., Mguni, N., Mulgan, G. & Shandro A. (2010) The state of happiness: Can public policy shape people’s wellbeing and resilience?. London: Young Foundation.