A few years ago, I went on a research trip to Sierra Vista, Arizona, and asked random strangers how they felt about their city. A woman in a bakery gushed for 10 minutes about the delight of raising her kids here in the clear southern sunshine. Shortly thereafter, a woman at a mall kiosk confided, with a look of desperation, that Sierra Vista was a black hole of misery that she was trying and failing to escape.
Cities are funny that way. Their appeal exists, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. But as I explain in my new book This Is Where You Belong, loving where you live—an emotional bond called place attachment—matters far more to your health and happiness than you’d guess. If you’re unhappy with your place, it’s important make a change. And if finances or family obligations stop you from starting fresh somewhere else, try making a conscious effort to fall in love with your city.
I know this is possible from firsthand experience. When I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, with my family four years ago, I was so underwhelmed that I immediately started investigating online real estate options in Iowa. Blacksburg seemed claustrophobically small and Southern, a middle-of-nowhere college town with nothing to do on weekends but stare at the trees.
But the chaos and stress of moving had exhausted my family—especially my daughter, who had just started her third elementary school in three states. I decided that before packing up, I needed to give Blacksburg a serious shot.
After digging into loads of scientific research, I zeroed in on behaviors that were most closely correlated with place attachment. One by one, I started trying them out. Here are three of the changes I made that helped me most.
First, I found my tribe. One of the three major factors contributing to place attachment is the belief that your city has plenty of social offerings, according to the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study. You’ve got to feel as if you’ve got something to do on a Saturday night—and a friend or two with whom to do it.
“I think we’ve glossed over that basic human need that people have to feel like they’re in a space where they have opportunities for positive social interactions,” says Katherine Loflin, the study’s lead author and a consultant who specializes in helping people and cities develop place attachment.
Unfortunately, moving makes you feel like a stranger in a strange land, or as one woman I interviewed said, that “If I died, no one within a 50-mile radius would care.”
To build some fast social capital, I joined the local congregation of my church, whose members were morally obligated to be nice to me. Through church, I found a book club, and from that, I gained a neighborhood walking buddy.
Since I work at home, these semi-regular opportunities for adult conversation doubled as community mentoring. I asked for advice about the best doctor, the cheapest grocery store, the nicest park, and undiscovered restaurants. The recommendations I received helped me put down more roots. Meanwhile, walking around town with a friend helped me develop a cognitive map of my neighborhood. Simply knowing how to get from point A to point B made me feel more like I belonged in Blacksburg.
There are dozens of ways to form connections with locals, including taking a class or joining a sports team. Dogs and kids help break the ice. The process can be a bear, especially for introverts. But a few reliable friendships are crucial to forming a connection with your place of residence.
Second, I hung out in nature. Amanda Burden, the designer of New York’s much-praised High Line park, says that urban green spaces can “change how you live in a city, how you feel about a city, whether you choose one city over another.” According to the Soul of the Community study, admiring the aesthetics of the place where you live makes you far more likely to feel attached to it. And research has shown that time spent among trees and green has such marked health benefits that some scientists call it vitamin G.
Although we’re not terribly outdoorsy, my family began taking short, kid-friendly hikes around the county. We even camped a few times, and as the early-morning mist rose off the meadow, I finally realized, It’s so beautiful here.
Sometimes place attachment can be as straightforward as creating happy memories where we live. As I made more friends with whom to go trekking in nature, even the disasters—like getting soaked in a sudden rainstorm on the Blue Ridge Parkway became—something to laugh about with a girlfriend later on.
Time spent kayaking or hiking or doing outdoorsy things where you live also builds a sense of place dependence, an offshoot of place attachment. You rely on your place to do what you love, and doing what you love makes you happy. Naturally, you wind up loving your place more.
Third, I bought local. When you love your city, you do what’s good for it. Shopping at local independent stores kicks in the local multiplier effect that leaves three times as much cash circulating in your community as does when you shop at big-box chains. Plus, you develop loose-tie relationships with small-business owners and employees that can be really satisfying.
When the bookstore owner sets aside a children’s book he thinks your kid will like, or the barista at your local coffee shop begins preparing a vanilla latte the moment you walk in the door, you start to feel that the community has carved out a place for you. You play a role in its daily workings. You are known. That sense of belonging makes it a lot easier to love where you live.
It’s true that you may putting in all that hard work only to wind up deciding that your city just really isn’t the place for you. But it’s also possible that you’ll change your mind completely. Sometimes you don’t need to get the hell out of Dodge—you just need to get to know it a little bit better.