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'Life Kit': How to be a better neighbor

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This is the time of year when many people take stock, look ahead to the new year and set new goals. If that sounds like you, we've got you covered. As a holiday gift, we have selected a few episodes of Life Kit, the podcast that gives you tools to get it together in every area of your life. All this week, we'll feature advice that will help you be a better you in 2022. Today Life Kit's Diana Opong has tips for how to be a better neighbor.

DIANA OPONG, BYLINE: Knowing how to be a good neighbor is a skill that is helpful to start at a young age. And Chris Loggins knows all about that. Chris is the supervising producer for "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood."

CHRIS LOGGINS: The show is for 2 to 4-year-olds. And it is directly inspired by "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Part of that program took place in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. And what we have done is update the show and animate the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. In each episode, there is a little song that is repeated throughout. We call it the strategy song. And these are all strategies to help children develop social and emotional skills.

OPONG: So I called Chris up because I knew if anyone could, he would probably be able to help me learn a thing or two about being a good neighbor.

LOGGINS: I think being a neighbor starts with kindness and empathy.

OPONG: That brings us to Takeaway No. 1. This seems obvious, but get to know your neighbors. It all starts with getting out of your comfort zone, saying hi to people on your block and learning their names.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TIGER'S NEIGHBORHOOD SONG, "YOU CAN CHOOSE TO BE KIND")

LOGGINS: (Singing) You can choose to be kind...

...Is another one of the strategies. I'm sorry for my singing. I know it's terrible. But that's in an episode of "Daniel Tiger" where he actually gets to be king for a day. King Friday makes Daniel king for the day in a playful way. And first, Daniel thinks, you know, being the king is all about being in charge and telling people what to do. And - but he quickly learns that the most important part of being king is being kind and taking care of the neighborhood.

OPONG: And that takes us to takeaway No. 2 - make small, kind gestures a daily practice. You can ask your partner or kids to help pick flowers from your garden to give a new neighbor a bouquet, or simply introduce yourself when you see them out for a walk. Once upon a time, in 2013 - the Before Times - a chain of generosity led over 200 people to pay a little kindness forward.

MARTA ZARASKA: There was this one instance in Winnipeg, in Canada, at a local Tim Hortons. One driver decided to pay for the meal or the coffee of the driver behind him at the drive-thru. And then that driver was so grateful, he decided to pay for the driver behind him.

OPONG: That was Marta Zaraska. She's a science journalist and author of "Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, And Kindness Can Help You Live To 100." I reached out to Marta to help me better understand how taking care of our neighbors positively impacts our well-being.

ZARASKA: For a very long time, I've been interested in how to live healthy and long. But I'd been approaching it before in the classic ways of, you know, diet, exercise. And then at work, I started coming across more and more studies showing that, actually, our mental health, our mental habits as well, our social behaviors, moderate at least as much for our longevity and health as diet and exercise.

OPONG: But you say, instead of popping multivitamin pills, we're supposed to just connect with our neighbors. Skip the fitness tracker and engage with your community through gardening and connection. And I loved that. Another piece that I loved, too - stop obsessing. Be social and mindful, because that matters more for your longevity.

ZARASKA: We have lots of different mechanisms inside our bodies, for instance, social hormones - such as oxytocin, serotonin, vasopressin, endorphins - that make this connection between how we relate with others and how our body works in the physical sense.

OPONG: That's Takeaway No. 3. Remind yourself that being connected with other people feels good. Encourage your kids to get to know the people they see in their neighborhood. Or even have them help make cards for neighbors during the holidays. We have a change in our brains when we connect with others. But sometimes, connecting with people may not always feel safe.

ZACH NORRIS: And the stranger danger piece real. And we want to keep our kids safe.

OPONG: Zach Norris made some time to talk to me about finding this balance. Zach is a father and the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif.

NORRIS: But I think the stranger danger can also be misleading in terms of how harm most often happens in our society.

OPONG: One way to combat the stranger danger outlook is getting involved in your neighborhood with your kids. That's Takeaway No. 4. Take your kids to places where they're meeting all different kinds of people who live in your neighborhood. Zach does this with his own daughters.

NORRIS: I get to take them to events where they see amazing leaders who are incredible and empathetic, and also who are formerly incarcerated, who have committed some acts that led them - that they've caused harm, that they have made amends. And I think those are some of the experiences that we expose them to that I think help them to understand safety in a more dynamic way.

OPONG: Feeling safe plays an important role in our drive to want to connect with our communities. Just like Chris Loggins said, people aren't just good or bad. There are nuances to all of this. Zach knew he had to be careful when talking about this with his kids.

NORRIS: We just have conversations with them. We talk about, you know, here's what this person who broke into our home may have been experiencing themselves.

OPONG: Zach and I also talked about what it takes for adults to really feel connected to their communities. Increased crime rates and the barrage of bad news that can be found on a daily basis can make the world feel unsafe.

NORRIS: If we can understand that there's a distinction between crime and harm and that in order to get safe, we actually have to address both of those dynamics...

OPONG: Addressing harm when it's been done in any form, big or small, it starts with empathy. So let's say someone feels like they want to call the police in their neighborhood. What should they ask themselves before making that call?

NORRIS: I think they should ask themselves if they are seeing someone being actively harmed. So if you're calling the police because you don't believe someone belongs in your neighborhood, ask yourself, why?

OPONG: And that brings us to Takeaway No. 5. Check your implicit bias. Getting to know your neighbors and connecting with your community is a valuable way to feel safer in the place that you live. Part of this is understanding, who even is a neighbor? And Zach has a more inclusive view about this.

NORRIS: Your neighbors are people who come to park near your house because maybe they don't have an adequate park in their neighborhood. Your neighbors are folks who come and run through your neighborhood, right? Because I can't be safe on my block if you're not safe three blocks away.

OPONG: Being a caring, more present neighbor is a helpful way to feel more safe and secure in the place that you live. The more you show your kids to appreciate their community, the more they will value being part of a whole.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: That's Diana Opong from NPR's Life Kit podcast. You can hear additional episodes on health, finance, parenting on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. And all this week, we'll have advice to inspire you for the new year on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.