Bonding Beyond the Fence: Can Happy Neighbors Make You Healthier?

I drove through my old neighborhood last week and proved that you really can’t “go back.” Where a constantly swinging gate once stood that linked two families in fun and friendship is now a privacy fence.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” But I never found this to be the case. In fact, it has been my experience — and science will back me up — that being neighborly has tremendous health benefits and may lead to greater happiness.

A Little Lovin’
“All you need is a little lovin’.” This became our motto after hearing our 6’5” burly neighbor lovingly say this to the family’s cockapoo. It was mimicked by my parents and said to us kids to cover everything from failed teenage romances to an acne breakout before prom. Research tell us that “a little lovin’” or being socially connected to others releases oxytocin (the happy hormone). In the documentary Happy, produced by Roko Belic, one of the keys to contentment is multigenerational interaction. Living next to the pooch-loving producer and his family, who brought Broadway shows to our city, definitely helped release some good hormones. Although, looking back, a few brain cells were lost as well.

Neighbor Ken provided “toddy” time for my parents and grandparents and was famous for his gin giblets that morphed into “gim gizzards” after my Gram consumed one. We also bonded over games like Trivial Pursuit. The competition was brutal and mentally stimulating unless we played with one my brother’s female interests. Exhibit “A”: “How many tenths of the earth’s service is under water?” Her answer: “Do you mean pup tents or those really big ones?” Our families finally installed a gate after endless game nights, floating in our pool and sharing “gim gizzards” wore down the fence.

An Old Dog Learns Yiddish
I am happy to report that I am still “hopping fences” as an adult, although figuratively, not literally. This has led to an experience reportedly vital to happiness: Mixing up your routine. For example, I have unlimited access to neighbor Gail’s kosher oven when I cook for a crowd as long as I don’t come within 500 ft. of it with a ham. I have also expanded my brain capacity and increased my happiness by learning a little Yiddish. I am “schlelpping” and “schviting” with the best of them — even though I’m a goyim — thanks to gabbing across the fence.

Increased Heart Rate and Inappropriate Reindeer
Physical activity has also been discussed as a key factor in boosting contentment and immunity. Scientists believe that physicality raises dopamine, a neurotransmitter for feeling happy. I once answered my phone to a frantic, “Get down on your stomach! Crawl toward the door but DON’T PANIC and stay calm even though you’re on fire!” After I frantically got out of the house, I learned that the “smoke” she saw was actually steam coming out of my dryer vent. Thanks to my worrisome neighbor, my heart rate often reaches the target goal without even hitting a treadmill.

Yet nothing combines key elements such as physical movement and bonding to boost your immunity and happiness levels like the neighborhood prank. Here are a few ideas that have been tested — or so I’ve heard:

  • Put a “For Sale” sign in your neighbor’s yard with their contact info. They will enjoy talking with new people who call to inquire about their house.
  • “Old school” printer paper that is one continuous sheet (no longer easily accessible) is perfect for wrapping around your neighbor’s house.
  • Dress your neighbor’s decorative reindeer in festive boxer shorts and move them so that they appear to be staring in their window. *I admit to being in on this, but I swear I am not the one who made them look like they were having an amorous moment.
  • When house sitting, leave a photo book on the table for your neighbors to find at their leisure with memories of the house party you threw in their absence. A nice touch: Put the homeowner’s decorative bunnies in the middle of a staged poker game with the caption, “I’ll raise you one %$# rabbit.”

Other proven activities that will lead to better health and contentment are being there for others and appreciating what you have. Why not start next door? Be the person who feeds the cat, makes the casserole and waters the flowers. Be grateful, install swinging gates, hop over fences, and give a “little lovin’.”

Do you have a good relationship with your neighbors? Share your experience in the comments below.

MaryMary Helen Darah is an award-winning columnist who has appeared in numerous publications in the Toledo area and beyond. She has also been honored for her work and inspiration as a breast cancer survivor. 

“The Mother of Mayhem” has a continual source of material through interactions with daughters Lauren, Helena, and Maria; and international student, May Liu from China.

Mary Helen looks forward to writing and sharing the stories of members of our community who turn the ordinary into the extraordinary while delivering a dose of what she feels is the best medicine — laughter — in her monthly column, The Mother of Mayhem.