The Joys of Going Off the Map

Melody WarnickLove Where You Live experiment, Place love0 Comments

Unsplash/Volkan Olmez

In a heroic act of altruism, my mom, who lives on the other side of the country, offered to watch our two daughters so my husband and I could go on a cruise to Alaska. Her one antiquated request beforehand: a paper map of our town. “I like being able to get a sense of the big picture when I’m in a new place,” she said.

I didn’t even know where to find a paper map! In the age of ever-present GPS navigation, a physical map seemed as antiquated as a horse and buggy.

Then an odd thing happened. My husband and I left for Alaska, where we used—wait for it—paper maps.

Because we were out of our normal cell range and at one point out of the country, we kept the GPS turned off. So at every port where the cruise ship docked, we picked up a free paper map from the visitors center so we could get from point A to point B.

Researchers have long been interested in how humans navigate. A recent study by cognitive neuroscientist Thackery Brown at the University of Stanford suggests that goal-oriented travel is enabled by interactions between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, while other parts of the brain acknowledge and sometimes pursue “sub-goals,” or stimuli encountered along the way to the original goal.

Interestingly, the brain handled both goals and spontaneous sub-goals more effectively than “non-goals.” As we move around places, we want to go somewhere.

I’m no neuroscientist, but I know that there is pleasure in using a real map to figure out one’s own way around a new town—and an even deeper pleasure in occasionally leaving the route. On a four-hour stopover in Victoria, Canada, my husband and I ambled down Dallas Road toward Cook Street, a neighborhood friend had told him about. As we walked, I was constantly diverted by impulsive sub-goals. For instance:

Sub-goal One: Hey, there’s a walking path along the coast here. Let’s take it.

Sub-goal Two: Look at that darling house down the street. I want to see it.

Sub-goal Three: A rose garden! I love roses!

And so on. Though we ostensibly had a goal in walking around Victoria, allowing ourselves to be temporarily sidetracked created a better sense of place than simply following the map would have. Every time we stepped off the planned route, we expanded the coverage area of our cognitive map, and we firmed it up too, since we needed to return eventually to our original route.

Walking has been shown to contribute to happiness, creativity, calm, and clarity. Perhaps it’s when we approach our routes with a sense of openness and whimsy that getting from point A to point B does that best.

Next time, opt for a Distraction Walk. Set out with a goal in mind, like the store or the park (probably not work, unless you have a very understanding boss), and then allow yourself at least one curiosity-led side excursion. Admire a house on another street. Visit a dog. Photograph a bird. Navigational sub-goals will keep your internal GPS sharp and help you remember why you love living where you do.

Why You’re Miserable after a Move

Melody WarnickMoving, Place love0 Comments


No one who packed up a U-Haul this summer would disagree with the notion that moving is a miserable experience. Whether you went 20 miles or 2,000, the sheer stress and exhaustion of packing up your entire life and setting it down again in a different place is enough to induce at least a temporary funk.

Unfortunately, new research shows that the well-being dip caused by moving may last longer than previously expected. In a 2016 study in the journal Social Indicators Research, happiness researchers from the Netherlands and Germany recruited young adult volunteers in Dusseldorf between 17 and 30, a mix of locals and migrants from other parts of Germany, and used an app to regularly ping them with four questions:

How are you feeling?
What are you doing?
Where are you?
Who are you with?

Over the course of two weeks, study participants talked, read, shopped, worked, studied, ate, exercised and went for drinks, sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner, family, or friends. By the end, some interesting data had emerged.

First, Movers and Stayers spent their time differently. The Movers, for instance, spent less time on “active leisure” like exercise and hobbies—less time overall, in fact, on all activities outside the home/work/commute grind. Movers also spent more time on the computer than Stayers—and they liked it more.

Second, even though Movers and Stayers spent similar amounts of time eating with friends, Stayers recorded higher levels of enjoyment when they did so.

Study authors Martijn Hendriks, Kai Ludwigs, and Ruut Veenhoven posit that moving creates a perfect storm of unhappiness. As a Mover, you’re lonely because you don’t have good friends around, but you may feel too depleted and stressed to invest in social engagements outside your comfort zone. Anyway, you’re not getting nearly as many invitations because you don’t know as many people.

The worse you feel, the less effort you put into activities that have the potential to make you happier. It’s a downward spiral of motivation and energy exacerbated by your lack of the kinds of friends who can help you snap out of it. As a result, Movers may opt to stay home surfing the internet or texting far-away friends, even though studies have tied computer use to lower levels of happiness.

When Movers do push themselves to go for drinks or dinner with new friends, they may discover that it’s less enjoyable than going out with long-time friends, both because migrants can’t be as choosey about who they hang out with, and because their ties aren’t as tight, which can make them feel less comfortable and supported. That can simply reconfirm the desire to stay home.

Recently, doing a radio interview about my book This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, I was speaking about the chaos and loneliness of moving when the interviewer asked me, “But are people usually happy with the fact that they moved?”

The answer is: not really. I hate to say that because for as much as I tout the benefits of putting down roots in a single place, I’m not actually anti-moving. It can sometimes be a smart solution to certain problems.

However, Finnish, Australian, and UK studies have shown that moving doesn’t usually make you happier. Australian and Turkish studies found that between 30 and 50 percent of Movers regret their decision to move. A 2015 study showed that recent Movers report more unhappy days than Stayers. “The migration literature shows that migrants may not get the best out of migration,” write Hendriks, Ludwigs, and Veenhoven.

The question is, can you get over it?

Moving will always be hard. If you’re in the middle of, recovering from, or preparing for a move, you need to know that things won’t be all rainbows and unicorns in the new city. That’s completely normal.

But you also need to make choices designed to increase how happy you feel in your new place. In my book, I explain that place attachment is the feeling of belonging and rootedness where you live, but it’s also one’s well-being in a particular place, and it’s the result of certain behaviors and actions. As you dial up your place attachment, your happiness and well-being also improve. It takes time. Place attachment, says Katherine Loflin, peaks between 3 and 5 years after a move. It starts, however, with choices about how you spend time in your daily life.

Here are three choices that can help:

  • Get out of the house. You may be tempted to spend weeks or months nesting in your new home, but the boxes can wait. Instead, explore your new neighborhood and city, preferably on foot. Walking has been show to increase calm, and it opens the door to happy discoveries of restaurants, shops, landmarks, and people.
  • Accept and extend social invitations. As we’ve seen, these relationships will probably involve some disappointment that the new people aren’t BFF material. Think of it like dating: You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.
  • Do the things that made you happy in your old place. If you were an ardent member of a disc golf league before you moved, find the new league here. Again, you may be frustrated to realize that no one respects what a great player you are. Patience, Grasshopper. That will come in time.
  • If your post-move sadness is debilitating or lingers longer than you think it should, speak with a professional. You may need additional help. Otherwise, slowly work toward making your life in your new place as enjoyable as it was in your old place. It will happen. Eventually.


    Martijn Hendriks, Kai Ludwigs, and Ruut Veenhoven, “Why are Locals Happier than Internal Migrants? The Role of Daily Life,” Social Indicators Research 125 (2016): 481–508.

    A 2-Minute Exercise for Feeling Happier Where You Live

    Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Love Where You Live experiment, Place love, Placemaking0 Comments

    "I Love Blacksburg because..."

    When I was a bummed-out teenager, I hit on an exercise that seemed magically to make me feel better. I called it the Happy List. I took out a few sheets of notebook paper and brainstormed as many things that made me happy as I could.

    Sleeping in crisp white sheets.

    Sitting in the sunshine.

    Cuddling with my cat.

    Watching the movie “Amadeus” for the umpteenth time.

    I knew intuitively what researchers have since verified: Focusing on the positive and writing it down can lift one’s mood and improve health and functioning. As Gretchen Rubin points out, “Studies show that recalling happy times helps boost happiness in the present. Also, when people reminisce, they focus on positive memories, with the result that recalling the past amplifies the positive and minimizes the negative.”

    That dwelling on things you love will make you happier than pondering the things you hate isn’t exactly earth-shattering. But it is effective.

    That thought was the impetus for a recent experiment I ran with members of my community. My book This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live was published by Viking last week, and as part of the launch week festivities, I organized both a book party and a booth at the town’s annual Summer Solstice festival. At each event, I asked townspeople to do an exercise in placemaking.

    I printed sheets of paper that said “I love Blacksburg because….” Then I asked locals to fill in their ideas. It took two minutes or less, and so over the course of the two events, I got probably 150 entries of all kinds. Here are a few:

    I love Blacksburg because

    • Of all my amazing childhood memories.
    • There are lots of playgrounds.
    • All my friends live here and everything is about 5-10 minutes away.
    • Green velvet mountains in spring, skyline in winter.
    • It’s always fun.
    • The library, Huckleberry Trail, and Steppin Out (a downtown festival).
    • The people are so wonderful!

    Every town has its lovers and its haters, the people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else and the people who can’t wait to leave. What we focus on essentially determines how we experience life. That’s as true for our cities as it is for our families, our workplaces, and everything else.

    So you can make mental lists of everything you despise about your city—the traffic, the heat, the noise, the expense. Or you can make lists of what you adore.

    So try this exercise: “I love my town because…” Fill in your blank. Start with the happy memories you’ve had there. Consider your best days in your community. Think of the people and places you’d love and miss if you moved away. If you’re being honest, there will be some.

    Then write them down in a journal, or put them on a piece of paper and post them somewhere you’ll see them regularly. The act of reflection combined with the forced positivity should provide a general mood boost as well as some targeted good feelings for the place you live.

    Where Do You Really Come From?

    Melody WarnickPlace love2 Comments

    Unsplash/Anubhav Saxena

    Unsplash/Anubhav Saxena

    Imagine you’re at a party with a bunch of people you don’t know, and someone asks, “Where are you from?”

    How do you respond: With the name of your neighborhood? Your city? Your hometown? Your state?

    It probably depends on a couple things. First, the social context. If you’re from Mobile, Alabama, and you’re standing at a Mobile bar surrounded by fellow Mobilians, you’d probably zoom in on your neighborhood. If you’re partying it up in Paris, you’d probably say, “Alabama.” In Vietnam, perhaps “I’m from America” might be your best bet for a nod of recognition.

    Second, how you describe where you’re from depends on your sense of place identity. According to social identity theory, we gain our sense of self through our membership in social categories—gender, religion, and so on. Because we all live somewhere, it’s a natural for social identity; the more positively we feel about it, and the more we see our place as a reflection of our core personality, the more we tend to emphasize it. So if you adore Miami and think your residency there says everything other people need to know about you, you’ve developed quite a strong sense of place identity.

    There’s also a dark side to social identity, though, and it’s that “social identity is developed and only makes sense in an intergroup context of social comparisons,” write Fatima Bernardo and Jose-Manuel Palma-Oliveira, psychologists from the Universidade de Evora and the Universidade de Lisboa, both in Portugal. How do we know which group we belong to? Because there are other groups we don’t belong to.

    Naturally, we want to believe we’re in the in-group, and the best way to assure that is by thinking of someone else as the out-group—and we always mildly hate them. Where we’re from not only makes us different, it also makes us superior. So we think: Yay, Southerners! Boo, Northerners! Or we tell ourselves that California is better than Arizona or Arizona is better than New Mexico, or Texas is better than everyone. Identifying ourselves with a social group means drawing a dark line between Us and Them.

    To see how in-groups and out-groups develop in places, Bernardo and Palma-Oliveira studied four distinct neighborhoods in Lisbon, surveying 180 residents about how they felt about living there compared to other nearby neighborhoods.

    Where neighbors had the highest concentrations of place identity and were the happiest with where they lived, they also did the most efficient job of devaluing a fourth neighborhood, called Chelas, where place identity was low. Chelas was described by researchers as hetereogenous, fragmented, and interwoven with high-density housing and industrial areas. Residents of other neighborhoods loved where they lived, and they loved the fact that it wasn’t Chelas. Residents of Chelas, on the other hand, made themselves feel better about their own place by saying, “We’re not that different from everywhere else.”

    Place is a substantial way to distinguish between Us and Them, and according to social identity theory, we need to identify Them in order to find Us. But there are ramifications to this kind of self-identity. Do we call other parts of town “the ghetto”? Do we say someone is from the wrong side of the tracks? Do small-towners demonize city-dwellers, or vice versa?

    In social identity theory, people can most effectively make the case against Them if they’re familiar with the enemy. Areas that are similar but not too similar play up differences between the in-groups and out-groups. But it can also lead to culture wars, gang wars, racism, and territorialism.

    I’m all about encouraging localism—my book, This Is Where You Belong, praises the benefits of loyalty to where you live. But I worry that, taken to an extreme, localism becomes another reason to define the Other, i.e., the people who are from other places. We shut ourselves off from people who are different geographically (or culturally, racially, or economically) based on the simple fact of their being different.

    Social identities are fluid, a resource that fluctuates according to our current situation and need. If you’re new or temporary in your city, your self-identification with it might drop, while your identification with your state or country might increase. Similarly, if you identify with your neighborhood—I’m from Brooklyn!—your city might seem less important to you.

    So imagine again that you’re at that party in Vietnam. This time, you meet a fellow American. Here? In Vietnam? So far away from home, it wouldn’t matter if she were from California and you were from Maine. Surrounded by members of an out-group, you’d both feel like you were from the same place. If she turned out to be from your city? Or even from a neighborhood you know? Well, that would be something of a miracle.


    Fatima Bernardo and Jose-Manuel Palma-Oliveira, “Urban Neighbourhoods and Intergroup Relations: The Importance of Place Identity,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 45 (2016): 239–251.

    Moving to a New Town: The Impact on Kids

    Melody WarnickMoving1 Comment

    Source: Unsplash

    Source: Unsplash

    To break the news to our two daughters that we were moving to Blacksburg, Virginia, I concocted a scavenger hunt around our house in Austin that finally led them to a wall map. Next to the state of Virginia, a Post-It note said, “We’re moving.” Ella, then ten years old, looked at us with glistening eyes. “Really?” she said.

    Then she broke into a grin and flung her arms around us. “Thank you!”

    So that was weird.

    More typical, perhaps, is my friend’s daughter Grace, who spent her first couple months in Blacksburg prattling on about the places and people she missed in her old town of Ithaca, New York. “It’s not that I don’t like it here,” she reassured her mother. “But something just doesn’t feel right.”

    Moving is part thrilling, part awful, always emotionally fraught. And as hard as it is for emotionally stable adults, it can be particularly trying for children. By age five, when kids are old enough to have their own social network and happy memories of life in a place, a move can feel like a forced march into enemy territory. All that is familiar, comfortable, and beloved is being left behind.

    Most kids are resilient, moping for a few weeks or months, but eventually settling into new friendships and falling in love with their surroundings—in the same slow, careful way adults do.

    But I’m not going to lie. If you’re moving with kids or teenagers this summer, you’re right to worry, at least a little. Geographic mobility has been shown to have serious adverse effects, particularly for teenagers.

    One longitudinal study of data gathered in Amsterdam found that teenagers who moved a lot were more likely to suffer from stress, fatigue, irratibility, depression, sleep difficulties, and other psychosocial issues as adults. A University of Virginia study showed that introverts who moved a lot as children died earlier as adults. Other researchers have found that frequent or recent movers performed worse in school and were more likely to misbehave, abuse drugs, or engage in sexually promiscuous behavior.

    Why so many problems? Psychologists suggest you blame the unmooring range of negative feelings and experiences that children deal with when they move: loss, grief, loneliness, fear of the unknown, lack of social support, frustration, stress, and helplessness. For some children, particularly those in familial situations already low on stability, the emotional demands of moving can set off a cascade of lasting psychological and emotional effects.

    If you’re planning a move or anticipating a job transfer, you’re probably scared right now. Here’s the good news: Your move doesn’t have to completely mess up your kid for life. Simply being mindful of your child’s needs during this transition allows you to offer extra help. Here’s how.

    1. Give your kids some control. For teenagers, feeling like major life decisions are being made over their heads can trigger anxiety and a sense of helplessness (which can translate to rebellion). The antidote? Involve them in as many decisions as you can. Invite them along on your house hunting trip. Let them peruse the listings. At the very least they can choose their own bedroom.
    2. Help them acquire friends fast. The most frightening part of a move for kids (and frankly, adults) is losing their reliable and long-standing network of friends. To make them feel more comfortable in their new place, make socializing priority #1. Join a sports league, sign them up for summer camp, work the playdate circuit. It’ll take time, particularly for adolescents, so encourage them to maintain friendships in their old city for now. Knowing a BFF is a text away will help them feel less lonely and awkward.
    3. Reestablish stability. Quickly resuming old routines, including chores and Friday night pizza dates, will make kids feel more grounded. Attending a church like the one in your last town may help too.
    4. Ante up. One mom I know offered her daughter a new dog and her son a ride to and from middle school every day (so he could avoid the dreaded bus). Normally I don’t recommend bargaining with terrorists, but in this case the move was your choice, and your kids are being forced to go along with it. It’s not out of line to sweeten the pot.
    5. Love your new town. Your children will mourn what they miss about where they came from, but you can speed up the process of place attachment by highlighting new things to adore, from festivals and concerts to museums and zoos. The quicker you figure out what your town is good at, the easier it will be to fall in love with it. And that’ll make everyone, kids and adults alike, a lot happier where they live.


    Shana L. Pribesh, “The Consequences of Residential and School Mobility for Adolescents,” PhD dissertation, The Ohio State University, 2005.

    Doohee Lee, “Residential Mobility and Gateway Drug Use Among Hispanic Adolescents in the U.S.: Evidence from a National Survey,” The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 33 (2007): 799–806.

    Kuan-Chia Lin, J. W. R. Twisk, and Hui-Chuan Huang, “Longitudinal Impact of Frequent Geographic Relocation from Adolescence to Adulthood on Psychosocial Stress and Vital Exhaustion at Ages 32 and 42 Years: The Amsterdam Growth and Health Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Epidemiology 22, no. 5 (2012): 469–76.

    David J. Dewit, “Frequent Childhood Geographic Relocation: Its Impact on Drug Use Initiation and the Development of Alcohol and Other Drug-Related Problems Among Adolescents and Young Adults,” Addictive Behaviors 23, no. 5 (1998): 623–34.

    Shigehiro Oishi and Ulrich Schimmack, “Residential Mobility, Well-Being, and Mortality,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, no. 6 (2010): 980–94.