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 Realtor.com 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.

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.