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.

Issue 6: Have Yourself a Merry Local Christmas

Melody WarnickBuy local0 Comments

I learned the scuttlebutt at the elementary school. “Did you hear about Paula?” another mom asked. “She slipped in her kitchen and broke her pelvis.”

Oh no, I thought. No no no.

There is never a good time to break one’s pelvis. If you’re the owner of a toy store, however, the week before Thanksgiving may claim top prize as worst timing ever. Wish lists were about to get thrown down. The electrifying rush of Small Business Saturday, not to mention the rest of the holiday season, would shortly be unleashed. Paula Bolte, who owns Imaginations, the toy store in Blacksburg, was now consigned to watch it all from a wheelchair.

Utterly justified in holing up with some self-pity, Paula showed up in her store just a few days after her accident for the annual Imaginations Christmas Window Reveal Party. “How are you doing?” I asked.

“A little loopy on painkillers,” she replied, stretching out her arms for a hug as her husband maneuvered her wheelchair.

The pain (and the painkillers) keep her on a tight leash, able to endure only a half hour or so of the gale-force wind that is the toy store at Christmas. So Paula is learning to let go and trust her employees. That evening at the store, it was clear they’d come through for her. So would her customers. After the butcher paper was torn from the store window, Paula held court while friends and neighbors one by one lamented her sad story and wished her well.

Before writing about Imaginations and other local businesses for This Is Where You Belong, I really didn’t understand how a person who sells you stuff could become your friend—or why you’d want her to. Just ring up my purchase and I’m out of here, I thought.

But I’ve been the beneficiary of Paula’s graciousness and loyalty for several months now. A few days after Paula’s accident, I mentioned in this very newsletter that my 15-year-old daughter had opened her own Etsy shop. Who but Paula immediately ordered two art prints? And asked for Ella to deliver them so she could make my girl feel like a celebrity for a few minutes?

Buying local isn’t always easy or cheap. Yet somehow it always makes you feel richer. So here’s my challenge: This season, try to shift at least 10 percent of your holiday shopping to locally owned businesses. You’ll make your Christmas merry—and theirs.

7 items of interest
1. The obvious way to make your city better: put googly eyes on it.
2. A cheaper city can let you do what you love.
3. Want to spend more time with friends and neighbors? Embrace the 5 rules of the crappy dinner party. (Rule #1—Don’t clean.)
4. Real estate developments with food!
5. “This is an invitation to think about Columbus.” How declining cities woo Millennials. (P.S.—My family talks up Columbus all the time. That zoo won me over.)
6. This Is Where You Belong was one of Planetizen’s top 10 books of the year!
7. If I move again, it’s either Denmark or Iceland.

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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.

    Issue 4: Don’t Ask for Permission

    Melody WarnickUncategorized0 Comments

    Thomas Knox is a guy from New York City who wanted to get people to slow down and talk to each other. So as a social experiment, he dragged a table and some chairs down into the subway, set out a board game, and waited. People rushing for the trains eyed him warily, but after a few minutes, a stranger got curious and sat opposite Thomas. The two of them would play Connect Four or Rock Em Sock Em robots as the trains rattled past. Mostly they’d talk.

    Knox called the project Date While You Wait, a nifty rhyme though in truth this wasn’t about romance. He simply wanted to connect. The strangers who sat with Knox loved it, and soon Date While You Wait became a sensation.

    Hearing Thomas tell his story at the ultra-cool CityWorks (X)po conference in Roanoke, Virginia, a few weeks ago immediately made me mull the possibilities here. What if I bought a bistro table and put it in Farmers Market Square with a chess board? What if I installed a Listening Booth and some ping-pong tables in a park like Big Car Collaborative did in Indianapolis? Or some luminous adult swings like designers did in Boston?

    What captivated me most was Thomas’s sense of pure possibility. He had this crazy idea, and he did not ask anyone for permission. He just did it. That’s how we change our places for the better. Make your good idea happen. And if you need some good ideas, start with my book or this amazing list of 101 small ways you can improve your city.

    7 items of interest

    1. Why this guy lives in Seattle and looks forward to rain more each year tells us something about how to deal with the climate where we live.
    2. My husband and I are still house-hunting, but then I read something like this essay and I think, “Maybe we should just move into a 900 square foot apartment instead.”
    3. A curated list of books set in or about every U.S. state made my to-read list mushroom.
    4. There are so many benefits to spending a little more time outdoors.
    5. If I saw one of Miguel Marquez’s fake signs outside, I’d be beyond happy.
    6. “No, I’m from New York.”
    7. I’ll be at the local Warm Hearth Writers Festival on October 29 and at the Texas Book Festival on November 5. If you’re around, come say hi.

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