The Power of Public Grief

Melody WarnickUncategorized0 Comments

Source: Ben Townsend/Flickr

Source: Ben Townsend/Flickr

For the first couple years we lived in Blacksburg, Virginia, I refused to participate in the Virginia Tech Run in Remembrance. It just felt too weird.

Every April, the university organizes a 3.2-mile run to memorialize the 32 students and faculty members killed in 2007 by a student who’d chained the doors to Norris Hall shut and sprayed classrooms with bullets. The Virginia Tech massacre remains the largest mass shooting in the country, evoked every time another monster murders a lot of people, which is far, far too often.

In Blacksburg, April 16 is a day that will live in infamy. There are residents who still can’t help but give a PTSD-fueled shudder when they hear a cavalcade of ambulance sirens.

Not me. I didn’t even live here at the time. I heard about it on the news in my house in Iowa, thought, “How awful,” then more or less moved on. This was a trauma, but not my trauma. A momentary kick in the gut, that’s all.

Then I moved here from Texas in 2012 and discovered that in some ways, April 16 happened yesterday. People brought it up in PTO meetings and dropped it in casual conversations. They promised on social media that they would #neverforget. A horseshoe ring of 32 gray Hokie stones in front of the administration building acted as a permanent reminder, but there were also, I knew, a series of memorial events each spring. The Run in Remembrance was one of them.

I never signed up. Because I didn’t feel intimately connected with the tragedy, horning in on it felt somehow false, an ugly and undeserved display that one researcher termed “emotional rubbernecking.” I hadn’t earned the right to be there.

But after a year of studying place attachment, I changed my mind. April 16 was the town’s tragedy. Now that I lived here, it was mine. The difficult things that happened here—even long-ago history—belonged to me in a sense. For better or worse, I’d inherited them and needed to do my part caring for them.

For someone who wants to feel like they belong, that matters. In a 2015 study, Miriam Rennung and Anja S. Göritz, psychologists at the University of Freiburg, set out to test the effects of sharing negative emotion. They gathered study participants into groups of three or four and had them watch video clips from sad movies like Schindler’s List, either collectively, semi-circled around a large screen, or on their own laptops with earbuds, not knowing that the person next to them was watching the same thing.

The result? Participants who communally watched the same clip felt closer to each other and more socially cohesive afterward than the people who’d stayed in their own head space. Experiencing negative affect together, at the same time, with attention focused on the same depressing point, made them feel bonded.

In other words, the public mourning that I’d eschewed as made-for-TV spectacle—the candlelight vigils, the public memorial services, the placing of stuffed teddy bears at community shrines—fosters social connection among people who vitally need it. Hopefully, write Debra Jackson and Kim Usher in an editorial in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, it’ll “contribute to community healing and recovery from trauma.”

So a few weeks ago I lined up alongside the Drillfield, Virginia Tech’s enormous quad, in my orange t-shirt and sneakers, and with 10,000 other participants observed a moment of silence for 32 people who I’d never known and never would.

Despite that, the run isn’t morbid or even particularly sad. The marching band plays. A capella groups sing along the route. Everyone yells “Let’s go Hokies” as we stream into the football stadium. But for at least that one moment before the running starts, we focus our attention on the single horrific thing that unites us as people who live in Blacksburg. I’m guessing it’s similar to how people in Newtown, Connecticut, feel united, or residents of Brussels, Belgium.

None of the current crop of Virginia Tech students was here in 2007; the freshman class was 9 years old then. We see the shooting at a remove, but because we live here, we’re in it together.

The #1 Thing You Can Do to Help Your Town Thrive

Melody WarnickCool projects, Place love, Placemaking0 Comments



Add this to the list of things you probably already know: Volunteering is good for you. Like, seriously good for you. Various studies have shown that spending as little as an hour a week volunteering can:

  • Increase your well-being, making you more satisfied with everything about your life: your finances, your health, your accomplishments, your relationships. Basically it gives you a huge self-esteem boost.
  • Help you feel more socially connected.
  • Reduce depression and loneliness.
  • Make you physically healthier.
  • Send you a burst of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, to elevate your mood.

For a supposedly selfless behavior, volunteering offers a lot of selfish rewards. But here’s one that most people don’t think about: It can make you feel happier about the place where you live.

Why? For starters, look at that list above. You’re happier and healthier! And one of the main principles of loving where you live that I learned while researching my book This Is Where You Belong is this: When you’re happy and healthy, you also are happy and healthy where you are. Contentment about your life in general tends to spill over into contentment with your surroundings—the rose-colored glasses effect.

Volunteering also increases our social capital by connecting us with new people and boosting the breadth of your relationships. Since friendship is at the top of the list of qualities that make us want to stay in our towns, that can increase place attachment.

Of course, even with all these benefits, only about one in four Americans volunteers nationally. In some cities, like Miami, the figure gets as low as 14 percent. But the more passionately we feel about our town, or on a smaller scale, a particular location in our town (like a library or an art museum), the more likely we are to volunteer.

Consider a 2014 study about volunteers at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Yorkshire, England. “Why do I volunteer?” said one woman. “It’s easy. Because I love the place. I love the park, I love the sculpture, the exhibitions which are put on.”

Another person explained how her sense of investment and connection increased as she volunteered there. “Working here made me experience more of the park . . . gradually getting to know it and feeling and understanding more of what it is about.”

One said that because she loved the park so much, she was eager for it to thrive. Motivated by a similar feeling, most volunteers turned into ambassadors for the park or advocates for it. They brought their own friends to visit, both to help the park’s finances and to encourage their friends to fall in love with it the way they had.

All this, concluded study author Saskia Warren, now a lecturer in human geography at the University of Manchester, indicated that “passion or love for a place can motivate volunteers.” And it matches up well with items from the place attachment scale in my book. When we’re very attached to the place where we live, we agree with statements like these:

  • I like to tell people about where I live.
  • I rely on where I live to do the stuff I care about most.
  • I’m really interested in knowing what’s going on here.
  • I feel loyal to this community.
  • I care about the future success of this town.

When we care about what happens to our town, we step up. We want to fix problems, or help the parts we love become even more lovable. The more we do that, the more we identify with our town. Not surprisingly, volunteers tend to make cities do better as well. Our success and our town’s success are intertwined.

Saskia Warren, “‘I Want This Place to Thrive’: Volunteering, Co-production and Creative Labour,” Area 46, no. 3 (2014): 278–84.

David Mellor et al., “Volunteering and Its Relationship with Personal and Neighborhood Well-Being,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 38, no. 1 (February 2009): 144-159.

Does Everyone Hate Your City?

Melody WarnickMoving, Place love0 Comments

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Here’s a startling truth: No matter how much you adore your city, there are people who hate it.

Like, really can’t stand it.

It’s strange, isn’t it, how two people who live in the same place can experience it in such vastly different ways? And yet 99% of the time, the city into whose soil you’ve dropped deep and happy roots is not universally beloved.

Recently, my friend Tana read my post about figuring out how attached you are to your town. She realized that her capital-H home was Toledo, Ohio, and she and her family gleefully decided to move back. She’s over the moon about it. Her friends, less so. “Really? Toledo?” they say, in the manner of Michael Bluth commenting on Ann Veal: “Her?”

As I researched place attachment for my book This Is Where You Belong, I learned an important concept: Our towns are what we think they are. My Blacksburg isn’t your Blacksburg isn’t my neighbor’s. Every city in the world has as many emotional responses to it as people living in it, a psychological malleability that is both wondrous and disconcerting.

What if the popular version of your hometown is ugly and unflattering? Worse, what if some of the criticisms are true?

Doing research on community news sources in small towns, the journalist Keith Hammonds visited Espanola, New Mexico, population 10,190. Espanola and the surrounding county are mired in serious problems—violence, drugs, poverty—and the award-winning local newspaper, the Rio Grande Sun, reports on them with a stern journalistic integrity, but for locals, the avalanche of bad news doesn’t reflect their sense of Espanola as a town where good things happen alongside the bad. One resident said,

[The negative news stories] tell us, this is who we are. It’s very powerful and very destructive. . . . It really manifests itself in our younger generation that can’t even identify with their community because of that negative connotation.

Cardiff School of Social Sciences lecturer Gareth M. Thomas studied a similar problem in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales (population 58,000), a post-industrial city that has been criticized as a place where “hard work has been replaced by hard drugs and crime.” If the reports are to be believed, it’s an ugly, desperate town full of “drug-taking, wife-beating criminals.”

Except what people said about it and what people who lived there experienced weren’t one and the same. Thomas asked young residents about where they lived, and he heard responses like this:

If you think of Merthyr, you’re probably thinking of drugs and stuff in Llanmerin [district] but they wouldn’t think of the valleys or anything. They wouldn’t think of the history and everything here, the good things.

In Australia, you walk past someone, they won’t say nothing to you, but if you walk in Merthyr, they’ll say hello. They’ll say ‘all right, how you doing?’ That’s why I like Merthyr.

[The public] don’t think a good lot of us living here. It’s not the nicest thing to hear, but it’s not as they see it. People think it’s bad. It’s really not. […] If I went to [city], there could be places I don’t like but I don’t know enough about them. You can’t judge them straight away. […] People judge Merthyr and it’s not really a bad place.

Because committed residents tend to feel personally and deeply connected with where they live, a concept called place identity, place-based stigma can cause stress and anxiety. It can be limiting for those who live there, imbuing them with an inferiority complex, or making them feel ashamed of their roots. “Once a place is negatively-labelled,” Thomas writes, “it is easier for authorities to justify measures which obstruct the capacity for people to remain healthy, thus further destabilizing and marginalizing them.

What if your community is stigmatized as an unlovable town? Three suggestions:

  1. Focus on the qualities you love about your town. The park with the lovely trees. The restaurant with the outrageously good pancakes. The store where the owner knows your name. The lack of traffic. The low cost of living. Anything.
  2. Get involved. Those bad things people say may be at least partly true, which leaves you with a choice: Deal with it or change it. Taking action will increase your sense of investment in your community, which will make you feel more empowered and happier.
  3. Like the people of Espanola, New Mexico, and Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, don’t let others tell you how to feel about your town. A sense of pride in your community is psychologically healthy for you and financially healthy for your town.

Doing These 3 Things After a Vacation Will Make You Happier

Melody WarnickLove Where You Live experiment, Place love0 Comments

Sofia Sforza/Unsplash

Sofia Sforza/Unsplash

Why does everyone hate tourists? Because we gawk. We rhapsodize about boring stuff like buildings (“Oh my gosh, the architecture!”). We snap pictures of subway entrances and sandwiches.

In short, we pay attention in a way we usually don’t in our owns hometowns, and that focus and excitement reawakens us to the thrilling power of place. In fact, a really good vacation makes us fall in love with our destination. Granted, it’s a low-grade version of place attachment—more infatuation than long-term commitment—but it can offer an emotional boost, even after we’re back to desk jockeying (sob).

Here, 3 ways to keep the happiness lift going well after your vacation days run out.

Share your trip on social media. Perhaps you intended to avoid the cliché of the obligatory vacation photo slide show. But the reality is, posting about the place might give you a buzz of good feelings. In one study, University of Florida researchers asked participants to imagine that they had just returned home from a great vacation—and now they were posting about it on Facebook. Afterward, the social media sharers felt more positive emotions about their hypothetical vacay—enthusiasm, pride, excitement—than those that didn’t post.

Curate your photos. When researchers from the Manchester Business School and the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom wanted to guage how much tourists loved their destination, they asked them to pick out “photos that you feel encapsulate and demonstrate your love for (destination).” Why? The authors suggest that “sometimes emotions are difficult to express in words, and asking respondents to produce an image provides a ‘different way in.’” So pick the pic of the happiest moment of your trip, put it on your phone or your laptop as a screen saver, and relive the good times again and again.

Figure out why it worked. Girish Prayag and Chris Ryan, business professors from France and New Zealand, hypothesized that the most loyal tourists—the ones who returned to the same spot year after year—were also the most personally engaged or involved with the place. So they quizzed 705 travelers to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean about their place involvement by asking them to agree or disagree with statements like these:

  • I get pleasure from being on holidays here.
  • I have a lot of interest in Mauritius as a holiday destination.
  • Being on holiday here is a bit like giving a gift to one’s self.

When vacationers agreed that Mauritius was interesting and pleasurable, they were also more likely to agree with place attachment statements like

  • Mauritius is a very special destination to me.
  • No other place can provide the same holiday experience as Mauritius.
  • Mauritius is the best place for what I like to do on holidays.

Understanding why a vacation worked so well for you not only cements the feeling of place attachment, it helps you determine what that place says about you and your personality. That may make you want to go back—or it may help you pick a similarly rewarding experience next year.

One word of caution: Happiness-inducing as a vacation spot can be, that’s not a signal that you should pick up and move there. As Katherine Loflin, PhD, author of Place Match: The City Doctor’s Guide to Finding Where You Belong, points out,

Vacation is a great way to get a feel for a place, and you should visit a place before you decide to live there. But that cannot be the extent of the dating you do with that place. It would be like meeting someone on a first date and then immediately eloping to Las Vegas.

It’s good to love your travel destination. It’s even better to love your hometown.

What Your Dream Vacation Says About You

Melody WarnickPlace love0 Comments

beach vacation

Where you go on vacation is usually curtailed by annoying practicalities like bank accounts and work obligations—two reasons why my spring break trip took me on a three-hour road trip to Richmond instead of, say, the UK or a Hawaiian island.

But if money and time were no object, where would you go for your next big trip? Most of us have a mental bucket list of the places we’d like to see, and as it turns out, the kinds of vacation destinations you gravitate toward generally reflect how you see yourself.

You see yourself as adventurous? You may opt for a Colorado hiking vacation.

You think of yourself as cultured? You head to the museums of New York City.

The more closely our image of our destination aligns with our self-image—what researchers Ning Chen and Tina Šegota call self-congruity—the happier we’re likely to be with our choice.

One recent study led by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi found that when it comes to travel, extraverts are happier at the beach, introverts in the mountains. “We argue that beaches are typically noisier, with more people to watch, talk to, and hang out with than mountains,” Oishi and his fellow researchers write. “In contrast, mountains offer many secluded places, which facilitate isolation.”

But again, those preferences relate to how we see ourselves, since the results were based on the answers study participants gave on a personality self-assessment. Did they think of themselves as introverted? Then they were also more likely to think of themselves as preferring the mountains.

Of course, the reasons we’re attracted to one vacation spot may not feel so simple. I’m desperate to visit Paris, but is that because I feel emotionally aligned with chic, sophisticated French socialites or because I really like macarons? (Answer: the latter.)

What is clear is that the same interplay between self-image and place image plays into our choices about where to live. Given your druthers, you’d choose to settle in a town that seems to reflect your most important characteristics and values—or perhaps just the qualities you wish you had (eduation, wealth, bohemianism). But the better the self-congruity, the more likely you are to develop place identity, the feeling that where you live is a powerful reflection of who you are. (You know you have it if you can answer yes to the question, “Does your city say a lot about who you are?“)

And to bring it all full circle, Chen and Šegota posit that when you get a good match between your place identity and your self-identity, you’re more likely to recommend the city where you live as a tourist destination.

Where we dream of going on vacation says a lot about who we think we are. But where should we actually go? Places where people talk about how much they like living there. Locals have the most to lose from an onslaught of tourists, but when they act as a “destination ambassador,” effectively telling all and sundry to come and visit, pay attention.


Ning Chen and Tina Šegota, “Resident Atttitudes, Place Attachment and Destination Branding: A Research Framework,” Tourism and Hospitality Management 21, no. 2 (2015): 145–58.

Shigehiro Oishi, Thomas Talhelm, and Minha Lee, “Personality and Geography: Introverts Prefer Mountains,” Journal of Research in Personality 58 (October 2015): 55–68.

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