Place as a Life Hack

habits place well-being Nov 17, 2021
Place as a Life Hack

Over the last decade or so, there have been a slew of books that incorporate behavioral science, psychology, economics and other disciplines to better understand how we think and how we can construct our lives towards better outcomes. Examples of bestselling books include Nudge, Thinking, Fast and Slow, The Power of Habit and, more recently, Tiny Habits. With over 3 million books sold, Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results may be the most influential of the lot.

These books provide advice on how to create interventions to make life better. This is referred to as ‘life hacks’ in popular culture. Wikipedia describes a life hack as any trick, shortcut, skill or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life. Finding the right life hacks for you make a difference, particularly when played out over the long term.


Power of Compounding Returns of Habits   

In the Age of Longevity, where living to 100 years will become more common place, we will need to become attuned to the power of compounding returns. Compounding returns are when a return from an investment of time or money is reinvested and benefits from the same return over a subsequent period. Over time these returns are not linear but exponential. Our minds are wired to think linearly, not exponentially, so we are often surprised by the result. Even Einstein was wowed by the concept of compound interest and was purported to have called it the “eighth wonder of the world.”


The Impact of small wins on a regular basis (Source: Atomic Habits)


Over a long period of time, even small differences can add up to make a big difference. In Atomic Habits, author James Clear illustrates the impact of small differences daily. He highlights the impact of a 1% improvement each day, a measure unnoticeable to most people. Such an improvement over the course of the year, however, is clear to see: it results in a nearly 38 times better outcome. Conversely, a worse outcome on a daily basis leads to a decline nearly to zero. Clear sums it up as “what starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.” 

Place as a Life Hack

One of the effective strategies for successful life hacks is to the make the right decision easy to the point that it becomes a habit and repeated on a regular basis. This is where place – where we choose to call home – can have a particularly powerful impact. If we choose and design our places carefully, we can be nudged towards behaviors that help expand our life span, heath span and wealth span. Keep in mind that longevity is only about 30% linked to our genetics; our life span is much more a function of lifestyle decisions and our environment.

Step one is to make sure that we think broadly enough about place. Place has a significant impact on our health and well-being. In its broad definition, place encompasses region, state, metropolitan area, neigh­borhood, and physical dwelling. Place has both direct and indirect impacts on a person’s life. The best place elevates the elements of well-being, including purpose, social connection, physical well-being, and financial well-being.



Physical elements that comprise place (Source: Right Place, Right Time)


The following are examples of how place can serve as an effective life hack:


  • Greater Social Connection. Loneliness has been found to be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can increase the risk of premature death by as much as 30%. Where we choose to live can invariably have an impact on social connections. Some neighborhoods are more socially connected than others. Some areas, through annual gatherings such as Fourth of July parades, Halloween festivities and park workdays, bring people together – often across generations – in an organized way. Some neighborhoods are designed with front porches or greater housing density that allows for frequent informal interactions that help stave off loneliness.


Some neighbors are more conducive to social connection and being physically active


  • Greater Physical Well-Being. Exercise has been shown to have an impact on our physical well-being in a plethora of ways, from strengthening muscles to improving heart conditions to sharpening minds. Again, place can be an effective life hack. Some regions of the country are more active than others. According to the CDC, western states lead the way in active lifestyles, with every western state having at least 20% of its population meet its guidelines for physical activity. In contrast, the Southeast and Midwest are the least active, with most of their states below the 20% threshold and some below the 15% level.


One place to start is to live in a region where being fit is the norm. It is easy to overlook the impact of the health habits of those around us and their impact on us. One study found that a person’s chance of becoming obese increase by 57% if a close friend is obese. We’re also more likely to be obese if our friends’ friends are obese.


  • Greater Financial Well-Being. Living a long life can be particularly hard to plan for from a financial perspective. Studies indicate that people know they should start early and save about 25% of their income annually. But in practice, they often don’t start saving until later in life, losing out on the full impact of compounding investment returns. But place can have a key role in having financial health for the long-term. One factor to consider, especially for older adults open to downsizing, is owning versus renting a home. While home appreciation has been considerable during the pandemic, typically the annual investment return of owning your home is significantly less than in the stock market at large. This opportunity cost of investing in higher return investment vehicles can be very significant compounded over a number of years.


Start with Place 

It may be that the biggest life hack is hidden in plain sight – it’s your home. Keep in mind that the life hack of place doesn’t necessarily mean a move is required. There are small things you can do with your place to improve your life. Significant changes can include remodeling your home to better fit your current or future needs. Other changes are smaller and less costly, such as joining a neighborhood walking group (my wife claims Jazzercise is making a comeback), rearranging furniture to create a newness to your space or finding ways to cut down on some of your regular home maintenance costs. Place can be foundational to a life improvement plan at any age.



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