How We Live Now: Creatively and Mindfully

Contemporary ways of living are innovative and thoughtful.

Posted Feb 17, 2016

Today's Blogger is Dr. Bella de Paulo, Harvard-trained social scientist whose insights and research into innovative trends in contemporary living—particularly among singles—has garnered mainstream media attention and high praise. Kirkus gave her current book starred review indicating exceptional merit. She is the author of the "Living Single" blog here at Psychology Today.

Q: Comparing today's American households to those of previous  generations, have there been any dramatic changes?  

A: In our cultural imaginations, there is one iconic way of living – in a home of our own, with a family of mom, dad, and the kids. That actually was a very popular way of living in the U.S. for a long time. Now, however, it is unusual – only about 20 percent of all households are nuclear family households.

Google images, available for reuse
Source: Google images, available for reuse

Q: Can you describe the changes? 

A: Major demographic changes have been sweeping the nation. One is the rise of single people. Currently, more than 107 million U.S. adults, 18 and older, are divorced or widowed or have always been single. Americans now spend more years of their adult lives not married than married! Another significant trend is the shrinking of family sizes. People are having fewer kids, or none at all.

Q: What do the changes mean?

A: All of these demographic changes mean that the sentimentalized way of living – in a home of your own, shared only with your spouse and kids – is no longer available to huge numbers of adults.

Q: So how are we living now?

A: That's what I set out to learn. To research my book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I traveled around the country, asking people to show me their homes and tell me their stories about how they are living and how their life spaces are working out for them.

Q: Which trends stood out?

A: The people I interviewed were living in a wide variety of arrangements, from the familiar to the radically new.  One way of living we once regarded as traditional – sharing a home with multiple generations or extended family members – has actually grown in popularity since 1980. So has the sharing of a place with people who are not family. We think of that as something that mostly only young adults do, but that's no longer so. People across the age range are living with friends instead of (or in addition to) family. Among seniors, think Golden Girls.

Other people, nostalgic for the villages of the past but also desirous of some privacy, are creating or joining intentional communities. In cohousing communities , for example, people live in private residences that are arranged around a common space. They also have a house they all share, where they sometimes get together for meals or meetings.

Q: What about arrangements involving kids?

A: Some of the most innovative life spaces I wrote about in How We Live Now  were dreamed up by single people who wanted kids, but did not want to raise them single-handedly. After her divorce, Carmel Sullivan created an online registry, CoAbode, where single mothers could look for other single-mother families interested in sharing a home and a life. Even more radical are registries such as Family by Design. They serve single people who want to be parents, but do not want to be single parents. So they use the registries to look for another compatible adult who also wants to commit to raising children – without also committing to romance or marriage. What the single people are signing up for is a parenting partnership, not a conventional coupled relationship.

Q: Did you find many commonalities among the people you interviewed?

A: There was something that just about everyone I interviewed had in common, despite all the ways that their life spaces differed: They were living mindfully. They went about the process of figuring out how they were going to live with much deliberation and thoughtfulness.

Q: Did you perceive any unifying patterns among the more "off the grid" living arrangements?  

A: For the people pursuing the most innovative and radical ways of living, there was no choice but to be mindful. There is no script for single-parent families who want to share a home and a life with another single parent family, so they have to figure it out for themselves. There is no script for two adults who decide to raise kids together without also coming together as a romantic or married couple, so they need to think it through.

Q: How did potential parenting singles research compatibility to parent together?

A: At the CoAbode website, as well as websites for parenting partnerships such as Family by Design, there are extensive resources. For example, there are questionnaires the single mothers or potential parents can complete, then exchange with others they are interested in pairing with. As I noted in How We Live Now, single mothers filling out the CoAbode questionnaires indicate, for example, "whether they like to have overnight visitors and whether another parent is involved in their children’s lives. They are asked to fess up about any bad habits, their use of alcohol, and their preferences for neatness and for sharing. There are also questions about their religious and political views. Lots of items pertain to childrearing: How do they discipline their children? What is their perspective on allowing their children to watch TV, use computers and electronic devices, eat junk food, and stay up late?" By the time the single mothers move in with each other, or the adults from parenting partnership websites commit to raising children together, they have probably discussed a much broader array of topics (including some deeply significant ones), in much greater depth, than most ordinary couples ever do before they marry.

Q: How much effort do individuals interested in joining a cohousing community put into research prior to becoming involved as a resident?

A: Cohousing communities, too, tend to be very deliberative about the process of forming a new community and then adding new members. Several of the people I interviewed visited the co-housing community many times before joining, so that both they and the other members felt confident about the fit. Another person was asked to answer 12 pages of questions before she was welcomed to join the co-housing community that interested her.

book cover, from Bella DePaulo
Source: book cover, from Bella DePaulo

Q: There have always been people living with non-relatives in order to live more frugally. Is that still a major aspect of the cohousing movement? 

A: The mindful approach to living sometimes carries over to more familiar living arrangements, such as sharing a place with people who are not relatives. True, there are many people who move in with roommates or friends only because they cannot afford to live on their own, and don't really care about their relationships with their housemates or how the place is maintained. More interesting, though, are the people for whom companionship is central. They welcome the day-to-day interactions, and the depth of knowing that can grow out of them. The shared households I visited did not leave their relationships to chance. For example, in Marianne Kilkenny's Golden Girls type household, all of the housemates got together every Monday morning. They began their gatherings with a brief meditation, then each person, in turn, discussed current feelings and concerns. That allowed them to address issues before bad feelings festered, and deepened their connections with one another. The meetings also provided a forum for organizing chores, visits from friends and relatives, and other household business.

Q: Did you find yourself drawn to interview cohousing situations exhaustively or did you approach the situations you encountered using a certain kind of filter?

A: My search for people to interview for How We Live Now was biased toward those who found their living situation especially fulfilling. I wonder whether the mindfulness with which they chose their life spaces and then lived their lives contributed to their deep sense of contentment. My guess is that it did.

About the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD. Harvard) is the author of books such as How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the "Living Single" blog for Psychology Today and the "Single at Heart" blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at BellaDePaulo.com.