There are three big decisions we make in life: What we choose to do for a living, who we choose for a life partner, and where we choose to live. I’ve long said the last of the three is the most important of all, because it shapes the other two. Where we live plays a huge role in the job opportunities and career networks that are open to us, and the people we get to meet, date, and ultimately, choose as our life partners.
In her recent book, This Is Where You Belong, Melody Warnick takes a deep dive into how our feeling of attachment to a particular place affects our work, family, and overall happiness. She does so through the lens of her own moves, especially her latest move from Austin, Texas, to Blacksburg, Virginia. In the book, she conducts a series of “Love Where You Live” experiments to see if it’s possible to develop “place attachment” wherever you are.
She’s the perfect person to talk to not only about how the place we choose to live affects our lives but how to approach making that choice. She was kind enough to answer the following set of questions.
Tell us about your own journey to find your place.
Growing up, I spent 18 years living in the same cul de sac in Southern California and never moved once. Then after college I got married and for various reasons—jobs, school, getting closer to parents—my husband and I lived in five states in 12 years. Some of those cities worked better for me than others, and I became mildly obsessed with the thought that if I could just find the perfect city for me, everything in my life would fall into place. But the perfect city was never where I was living, it was always the next one. Wherever that was.
It wasn’t until this last move to Virginia a few years ago that I finally decided I was doing it wrong. I was exhausted by all the moves and feeling negligent for dragging my older daughter through three elementary schools, and I thought, “I have to figure out how to be happy here.” Not long afterward I came across the concept of place attachment, which is the emotional bond people have with where they live, and from that point the quest became about doing things that would make me feel more attached to my town, rather than just picking up and starting over somewhere else.
The old expression is the “grass is greener … .” So many of us think things will be better somewhere else. But you say the key is in the “art of loving” where you are. Tell us more about that.
For a long time I was addicted to the idea of the fresh start. We bought a house in Austin, Texas, and two months later I was researching real estate in Indianapolis. Fear of missing out was like a mental illness for me.
To some extent it’s true that where we live fundamentally alters our life. Look at Raj Chetty’s data that shows that children are more upwardly mobile in some counties than in others. Where we live matters. But so does simply loving where you live, which has been linked to higher longevity, well-being, and local GDP growth. So you can panic that you’re missing out on some undiscovered utopia in Vermont, or you can just drill down and invest emotionally where you happen to be right now.
In the book, you say lots of people, especially young people, essentially pick the places they live sort of like going on blind dates. Is that really true? What else drives our decisions about where we live?
There’s a frequently cited study that says almost two-thirds of Millennials want to pick their city first, then find a job there, rather than go wherever a job takes them. That tells me that we’re paying attention to the holistic community and its potential to make us happy beyond job satisfaction. We’re asking questions like, Can I walk here? Can I kayak? Are there good restaurants? Can I find my tribe here? Places aren’t just a random backdrop. They define and facilitate the kind of lives we want to live.
You describe cities as having personalities. How do reputations shape them? Can they be changed or is there a point where places can’t change?
I love Jason Rentfrow’s research about how people with certain personality traits congregate geographically. In America for instance, you have concentrations of neurotic people in the Northeast and more open people in coastal regions. Cities end up manifesting the personalities of the people who live there, and that attracts similar people who, naturally enough, feel like they’ll fit in there. Eventually those reputations become self-perpetuating. Quirky people flock to Austin because they’ve heard it’s quirky, and so it stays quirky.
City reputations are slow to shift, but they do in rhythm with population and economic changes, and sometimes simply because groups of citizens really want to change a place’s reputation. That’s happening right now in cities like Detroit and Akron, where placemakers are transforming their local identity one pop-up store and business incubator at a time
Lots of people say, when your generation gets older and have kids, they’ll move to the suburbs just like everybody else. Do you see the idea of “settling down” changing for your generation?
I went into writing This Is Where You Belong with the assumption that a person who really loved their town would stay there forever, and then I was shocked when I learned about people who adored their places and moved anyway. I talked to a young guy named Nick Arnett who’d been a devoted evangelist for Fort Wayne, Indiana, but a couple years later he’d moved to Chattanooga.
Americans in general are a little nomadic, but the truth is, people change over time, and so do cities. At some point you may realize that a place you once adored isn’t working for you anymore. There’s no perfect place, just the perfect place for you right now. Just invest as much as you can into your city for however long you’re there, then do it again in your next place.
Can your city really make you happy? If so, how?
My theory is that cities don’t make us happy. We make ourselves happy in our cities. The really good news is that place attachment doesn’t care if you live in the objectively best city on the planet. (Not that one even exists.) Contentment comes from being passionate about where you live, no matter what.