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 learned from North York First Aid Training classes: “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.