Melody Warnick on How to Love the Place You Live

“The danger is that in this desire to find the new perfect life, the next big thing, we fail to pay attention to where we are, to love it, and to make efforts to connect with it, settle, and be happy”

Melody Warnick is the author of This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live. Her book documents the quest for contentment in a new town — after six moves in quick succession, Melody began a project aimed at strengthening her sense of place attachment, the feeling of connection to where one lives. Along the way, she learned about the science behind belonging, developed strategies for speeding up the process of feeling at home, and actually got to know the neighbors. Heleo’s Mandy Godwin joined Melody for a conversation about contentment, the American culture of restlessness, and why it matters to chat with your neighbors.

Mandy Godwin: How did you become interested in place attachment?

Melody Warnick:It’s very much a personal story for me. I was getting ready to move from Austin, Texas to Blacksburg, Virginia, and this was going to be the fifth state, with my husband, in 14 years. I went into these moves with really high hopes that the next city would be some magical Shangri-La and it would solve all our problems. I got to Blacksburg and this new town just felt very foreign to me. I had never lived in the South, and the terrain was incredibly different from what I was used to.   

I felt very alone, like this is not my town, why am I here. I started thinking, “Well, I guess we’re going to have to move again.” Moving was my solution for my problems all the time. If we didn’t like a city we would just pick a new one and move on. But I had kids who were in elementary school. My older daughter was about to head to her third school in her third state, and I realized we needed to make more of an effort to put down roots where we were.

Around then I stumbled upon the concept of place attachment, which is feeling attached to where you live, feeling connected to it, feeling like this is your home, and where you belong. The interesting thing I learned is that it’s a feeling, but it’s also a product of certain behaviors. There is research that links certain actions to that feeling of place attachment. And I started to think maybe it’s not really a matter of finding the perfect town. Maybe it’s just a matter of doing these things to make myself feel at home where I am. So that was the concept behind the book — I would dig down, and try and put down roots in my town rather than just picking up and moving on again.

MandyI wonder where that feeling of, “Oh, it will be better in the next town” comes from because that’s not just you. That’s everybody. We’re conditioned to think that something in the distance is better, the grass is greener.

Melody: Right, it’s such a weird psychological phenomenon. Most people have that to some extent. Part of it is just that we’re an incredibly restless society. There are stats that say that in the past five years, 35% of Americans have moved. Compare that to 5% of residents moving in China or Germany. We move a lot, and I think we’ve come to a feel a couple things.

First, that if you want to be upwardly mobile, or you want to make changes in a big way, you’re going to have to move. If you want a better job you’re going to have to move to a new city. We also feel like people who don’t move, who just stay in one place for a long time, especially if they’ve stayed in their hometown, that we feel like there’s something wrong with them. You may be perfectly happy, but you’re also kind of a failure because you’re not moving around as much as us other people who are really in demand.

The danger is that in this desire to find the new perfect life, the next big thing, we fail to pay attention to where we are, to love it, and to make efforts to connect with it settle, and be happy…

It’s this cultural conditioning that moving will create a new life for us. It’s true to some extent. We are a nation of immigrants: people who have come from other places. Our ancestors kept moving westward. If you think of the “Little House on the Prairie” books, what did they do? They moved every couple of years. So there’s this sense that moving will give us a new life. It’s the geography cure, and that is true to an extent.

There are huge differences between places, but the danger is that in this desire to find the new perfect life, the next big thing, we fail to pay attention to where we are, to love it, and to make efforts to connect with it, settle, and be happy in the place where we are right now.

Mandy:I’m originally from Tennessee, and when I was in high school, this story circulated about a girl who was from this tiny town a little bit outside of my hometown, and she had never left it. Everyone in our town thought that was totally baffling. It seems like there’s a suspicion of contentment. Maybe that’s an American thing.

Melody: I think it is an American thing. Other countries have it to a certain extent, and my guess is that the more upwardly mobile your country tends to be the more you might deal with this, but it’s also an American phenomenon because compared to Northern European countries, or even Britain, our country is massive. You can make an enormous multi-thousand mile move, and still be in your same country. Whereas if you did that in Europe you are in a different country.

There’s this concept that I introduced in the book of Movers and Stayers. I thought I had moved a lot, six moves in my post-college life, but when I did a book reading in DC I met a woman who had moved 44 times. She was working in non-profits, and she had lived overseas many years, and so sometimes it was six months in this war zone, and six months in this disaster zone.

Richard Florida makes this distinction between people who are movers, people who are rooted, and people who are stuck. We think of people who stay in one place as being stuck. I recently read a story about a woman who was living in Southern California. She was very happy with her life. But she began to have these fears of stagnation: if I stay in one place I’m stagnating, and I’m missing out (that’s another part of this, fear of missing out). She sold everything she had, and she bought a West Carrier van, and she is now traveling the country with her boyfriend.

That’s an extreme reaction to what I think is a common sentiment that if we stay in one place too long we’re stuck. The difference is that if you’re happy where you are, and you’re living a rich life and connected in terms of relationships, you’re not stuck, you’re rooted. You’re choosing that, and that is an entirely different feeling from feeling like I can’t escape this horrible town.

Mandy: What you’re talking about with your work seems like an antidote to FOMO. When you’re constantly moving there is something you’re giving up.  You miss out on something when you’re not staying put. You’re celebrating what happens when you stay in one place and decide to be rooted.

Melody: Absolutely. I met a woman named Gurtie Morris who lived in the same small West Virginia town her whole life. Her story made me sad when I first heard it because I thought she was one of those stuck people. Maybe to a certain extent she was because she lacked the financial resources to make these big moves that other people make, but on the other hand she has this very rich life where she’s surrounded by friends and family. Everyone in town knows her. She has made herself very useful to a lot of people. She’s a member of all the clubs in town, the Rotary Club, and the Red Hat ladies. She takes her neighbor shopping for quilting supplies.

For people who move frequently it’s hard to develop those rich networks of social connections. Not to mention that feeling of place attachment, which has been linked to a lot of mental and physical health benefits. When we love the place we live we have higher rates of well-being, unsurprisingly, but when we’re moving around a lot it’s hard to have that because settling in a new place takes some time.

My idea in the book was to speed it up, and I think you can make that feeling of place attachment develop quicker, but you can’t make it happen overnight. It does take some time. And when we get sick of places, and we have fear of missing out, we want to experience something new. We worry that the next town over is better, it’s going to meet our needs in some undefined way. Then we tear up those roots, and cut off those relationships that we’ve been developing, and we start all over again.

Sometimes starting over is necessary, and it can have its benefits, but even things like you live in the same neighborhood for four or five years, and you see familiar faces on the street, or in the grocery store, or the guy who runs the neighborhood newsstand matter. You may not have deeply meaningful conversations with them, but you have these kind of casual friendships, these loose ties, and those are valuable in their own way.

Mandy: It seems like the loose ties aren’t really often talked about in terms of things that are important to our well-being.

Melody: There’s a great book that I really love by Marc Dunkelman called “The Vanishing Neighbor,” and he talks about the concept of commercial friendships. These very loose tie sorts of relationships that you develop with the guy at the dry-cleaners, or the person at the coffee shop that you always go to. There is something really psychologically satisfying to be known in your community, being recognized, and in turn recognizing familiar faces. We have this experience together enough times that we’re not hanging out at each others’ houses, but we know each other in a sense.

I feel that way when I go to my grocery store or to the bakery down the street. I’m not at ease per se with people, but I recognize them. They may not recognize me, but I know them, and I think there’s comfort in that. There’s a sense of community and belonging in that.

I remember going to the library once. I’m sort of a library fanatic. I’m there multiple times a week, picking up holds, and I’ll work there sometimes, so I knew all the librarians on sight, but you still kind of feel like an anonymous patron. One time I checked out and didn’t have my library card, and the woman asked my name. She said, “Oh, you’re Melody. I’ve seen your holds, and I’ve been interested to put a face with a name.” They’re having the same experience on the other side of the desk as we are. They’re seeing us. They’re curious about us, and it was a reminder that we’re all human beings having these interactions that can be really enriching and uplifting if we let them.

Mandy: How do you feel technology and our developments over the last 20 to 30 years have shifted how we interact with each other?

Melody: Technology gives us the feeling that we’re being super social when we’re really not. I’m a pretty big introvert, and so sometimes I am perfectly satisfied to just sit in my house and like things on Facebook and Instagram. I’m left with the feeling like, whoa, I have such an enormous circle of friends. I’m doing so well! When actually I haven’t had any human interaction outside my home. There are great things about that. It’s allowed me to keep in touch with people that I knew from five towns ago, and sometimes it takes online relationships and turns them into real physical relationships, and that’s fantastic. But I also feel like it’s disincentivizing us to actually connect with people in our human space.   

People who know their neighbors’ names and trust them are 67% less likely to have a heart attack, and 48% less likely to have a stroke.

One of the casualties of that is the neighborhood. A lot of us don’t know our neighbors. We don’t know their names, and we don’t interact with them. It used to be in the ’50’s and ’60’s that people came out with their neighbors. They had poker games, and they did backyard barbecues, and now we mostly want our neighbors to leave us alone. Like if your dog isn’t pooping in my yard and barking all night, we’re good. That’s all I need from you. But when you’re thinking about place, place is geography, and the most intimate geography you have is your neighborhood. That is your closest community, and there are benefits to getting to know our neighbors in a personal way. There are some really surprising studies about the physical benefits of it. People who know their neighbors’ names and trust them are 67% less likely to have a heart attack, and 48% less likely to have a stroke.

Which is totally incredible. Whether you’re married or you have other close friends, there’s still an added benefit just from knowing your neighbors. It’s hard, especially, if you live in a city like New York, living in an apartment complex, these are not places that necessarily lend themselves to —

Mandy: Backyard barbecues.

Melody:Right, exactly! But I think it can start small like trying to be friendly to people in the elevator, or on the stairs, or chatting up your doorman, things like that. I’ve never become a pest with my neighbors, but I’ve gotten to know them enough to know their names, they’ll take my trashcan to the curb when we’re out of town, they’re keeping an eye on things, and that’s a really good feeling.

Mandy: With the disconnectedness you were talking about, there’s this idea that the ideal relationship with most people is not needing anything, and not feeling attached in any way. But I think maybe we do need to be needed.

The thing that tends to take your friendship to the next level is that moment when one of you needs something, and the other one is there for them.

Melody: Totally, I think being needed builds trust. Feeling like you can ask your neighbors to watch your kid, or to get your mail when you’re out of town, that is a sign of trust. When someone does that to you, you can provide that small bit of help that builds your affection, too. Think of how you develop your friendships. You usually start by spending some time together, but the thing that tends to take your friendship to the next level is that moment when one of you needs something, and the other one is there for them.

Whether that’s the middle-of-the-night phone call, or crying over the breakup, it’s just those moments of being able to serve someone like that that makes you love them more. I think that’s absolutely true for neighbors, too, if you give your neighbors an opportunity to help you in small ways. It may not be “hey, can you watch my kids everyday while I go to work,” but just my kid needs someplace to go for half an hour after school, and can you do that. People are happy to be extended that trust, and it makes them like you more.

Mandy: It bonds you together a little.

Melody: Right exactly, it’s bonding.

Mandy: How do you feel about your town now, after you’ve done this project?

Melody:The spoiler alert is that I really have come to love Blacksburg. In fact, I write in the book about how my husband and I have rented a house the whole time we’ve lived here, and we’ve just a few weeks ago got a realtor and are looking to buy!

We are here to stay. It’s funny, because starting out, of course I wanted these activities to work, and some of them did better than others. Some of the Love Where You Live experiments that I did were successful, and some weren’t, and I tried to be pretty honest about that. But cumulatively, the effect of making this effort over time completely changed my feelings about where I live.  

I’ve had a lot of experiences where I learned to appreciate my place, and it really is this feeling of belonging. It’s unexpected for me because when we moved here we didn’t know anyone. We had never lived in this part of the country before, and everything about the town was just different, and not always in a good way, but now when I drive around my town I feel like oh, man, this is such a great place, I can’t imagine finding a better place for us to live and to raise our kids. Some of that was just that place attachment develops over time, but a lot of it was working hard at seeing the good in my town, and appreciating it, and investing in it. It really changed how I felt, and made me want to stay here for a long time.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.