This year, right before Thanksgiving, a film titled "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is scheduled for release in the United States. In this movie Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers from the long running children's television show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." From 1968 to 2001, millions of children across American heard Mr. Rogers ask, “Won't you be my neighbor?”

Last year, a documentary on Fred Roger's life was remarkably successful and became the top-grossing biographical documentary ever produced. For Rogers, who had graduated from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, his use of the word “neighbor” was no accident. Eight times the Bible tells us to love our neighbors and this is one of its most repeated commandments. When Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responds with the story of the Good Samaritan, which puts us on notice that anyone we run across should be considered our neighbor.

My wife Diane and I especially liked Mr. Roger's puppet character, King Friday XIII. King Friday lived in the Castle, ruling over the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. He was a rather pompous fellow and enjoyed hearing his subjects greet him with the phrase: “Correct as usual, King Friday.” Diane occasionally uses those words when she thinks I might be right about something. I wonder if she is trying to tell me something about being pompous.

Psychologist Bella DePaulo from the University of California believes that today, people are less connected with their neighbors than ever before. She says, “A national survey ongoing since 1974 has shown that Americans have never been less likely to be friends with their neighbors as they are now.”

The Pew Research Center recently published results from its survey on neighbors conducted last year. They found that most Americans knew at least some of their neighbors, although older Americans knew more of them than younger ones. Among the people who knew their neighbors, about two-thirds said that they would trust them with a key to their residence. Older survey participants were among the most trusting. People also were more trusting in wealthy neighborhoods than in neighborhoods with lower incomes.

Although we never socialized much with our neighbors when I was growing up, I can still recall most of them. For many years our next-door neighbors were an older couple, who we seldom saw. My friend's cousin lived across the street, but our most colorful neighbors lived behind us, across the alley. In one house there was a nurse who worked at the state mental hospital. She lived there with her grown daughter and her son-in-law, who raised earthworms in wooden boxes of coffee grounds in a wooden shed behind their house.

On the other side lived a woman who ran a beauty parlor. Her trash barrel was always filled with empty aerosol hair spray cans. In the winter, kids would throw these cans into burning barrels all down the alley, setting off a series of explosions. It wasn't unusual to find flattened spray cans in our yard or on top of our garage.

An older two-story house was located right between the worm farm and the beauty shop. It was mostly empty, but one day it was suddenly inhabited by a large family with a wild gang of children. They were always playing country music and watching the "Porter Wagoner Show" on television. For a while they had a fancy speedboat and I once went with them water skiing. I was friends with one of the boys who was about my own age. Once when I was visiting him, two of the older boys got into a fight. The oldest threw an actual dart at the other boy and it stuck in his leg. He retaliated by throwing a steak knife, but fortunately he missed. One day we woke up only to discover that they all had simply vanished. I thought they were the best neighbors ever.

Marc Dunkelman, a public policy fellow at Brown University, believes that the current shift away from interacting with neighbors is because Americans have limited time and more ways to spend it. He says, “The reason, in many cases, that we were connected with our neighbors [in the past] was because we couldn't avoid it, we couldn't get along without it.” Today, many people prefer to spend their discretionary time on social media, relating to family and friends in that way, or watch cable and on-demand television. Many public neighborhood facilities such as swimming pools and gyms are now private and most people don't use public transportation. All of this means that we are growing farther apart and there is less opportunity to connect with people who are different from us and have different opinions. Some believe this is partially to blame for the degree of polarization in America society today.

It has long been believed that neighborhoods, as social networks, influence individual behaviors. The publication of the book, "The Truly Disadvantaged," by Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson in 1987, described what is called the “neighborhood effect.” Wilson theorized that living in particular neighborhoods affected a number of individual factors such as violence, drug use, economic success, infant mortality, school dropout rates and academic achievement.

Neighbors also have been found to influence employment, health, mental health, and other quality-of-life indicators. In one study, families that moved to safer and better-off neighborhoods showed significant health improvements, as well as less depression and increased happiness. Harvard economist Lawrence Katz said, "The difference between living in a very poor neighborhood and a moderately middle-class neighborhood is as large as doubling your income in terms of happiness and well-being." Neighbors can also serve as a resource for neighborhood information and current events.

It has been found that connecting with neighbors in even minor ways helps many people feel they belong, decreases loneliness, and increases health and happiness. Correct as usual, Mr. Rogers.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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