The United States is full of people who imagine the better life is just one move away, and I am not immune to this way of thinking. My husband and I feel the itch to start anew with our four kids. Months ago, we started fantasizing about somewhere cooler, somewhere with mountains, somewhere more exotic than the flat suburban terrain we inhabit in Texas.
Then we told our kids.
The two who are old enough to understand were horrified, and the younger ones latched onto their siblings' panic. Having lived in the same house all of their lives, they didn't view being uprooted as an adventure. They saw it as upheaval, chaos, and abandonment of their only home.
I felt deflated as my husband and I regrouped and tried to figure out what to do.
Would it be better to move to a place with more desirable characteristics, or should we try to love where we are right now for the sake of our kids?
The effects of moving
Researchers have studied the effects of moving on children, and the results are not encouraging for parents with wanderlust. A massive study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that children who moved were at higher risk of abusing drugs, attempting suicide, and committing crimes during their lives.
The study went further and found that the more times a child moves in one year the higher the risks of negative outcomes, and the early adolescent years, as expected, are the worst time for a move.
Another study looked at the effects of moving from one house to another to test the theory that as long as kids don't have to switch schools, they'll be okay. They found that they are not, in fact, okay.
In the over 20,000 kids studied, researchers found that moving between kindergarten and eighth grade affected kids' math and reading scores as well as their social lives, even when kids stayed at the same school.
Research can't be perfectly complete, and the reasons for moving are important. For example, moving because mom and dad are divorcing is likely going to cause more stress than moving because of a parent's lucrative job opportunity. However, the conclusion from all the data seems to point to moving as a stressor all its own.
Presented with the facts, choosing to move without a job or other tangible reason for a motivator feels wrong. Can we choose to go just for fun, and if not, how are we supposed to look at where we live now in a new light?
Falling in love with a place
Melody Warnick's book "This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live," jumped out at me from the library shelves. Still wading through our dilemma, I devoured this thoroughly researched work written by a parent who has moved with her family many times. In an attempt to fall in love with her newest location, Blacksburg, Virginia, Warnick set out to find research-supported ways to love where she landed.
She found that many practices known to make people happier are also keys to falling in love with our locations. Being happy by practicing known happiness boosters can foster a connection to being happy where we are. The following tips are easy enough to implement, and Warnick offers even more in her book.
Hit the pavement or path
Being on eye level with our town or city helps us see the details and makes us feel more attached. Plus, exercise makes us happy. Mental health, memories, and immune systems receive a boost from being outdoors.
We're also more likely to run into other people and to have a conversation if we're afoot rather than if we are in a car stuck in gridlock with other angry drivers. That leads to the next tip.
Steal a page from Mister Rogers
Nine years in the same neighborhood does not mean I know my neighbors. Parenting little ones is full-time work, and I am also leaning into my introvert tendencies as I age. I haven't fully invested in most of the people around us. This may be another reason I don't feel invested in where I live.
Knowing our neighbors helps us build relationships, and that has long-term effects. Besides feeling more connected to where we live, relationships with our neighbors that are positive can benefit our health more than kicking a cigarette habit or exercising regularly.
When natural disasters occur, those who know their neighbors may also be more likely to survive according to research Warnick discovered. People who know their neighbors are more likely to look out for them, including helping those who can't make it out on their own in the case of a hurricane, tsunami, or other threatening event.
Towns and cities depend on the kindness of volunteers to keep them running, and finding a place to pitch in helps families feel invested in the place they call home. Working to make a place better, whether it's by organizing fundraisers or donating canned goods to a food bank, makes us care about it more.
To stay or to go
There are positives to every place, and there are negatives as well. Warnick's book is helping me focus on what my piece of suburbia has to offer – tons of family friendly events and affordable housing – as opposed to all of the ways I feel it's lacking. However, I still can't say for sure that this is our forever home.
A brief vacation to Austin, a hipper, more outdoorsy part of Texas, even made our kids reconsider their reservations about moving. They loved the vibe and the allergen-friendly food, and as we headed home, my oldest wanted to know if moving was still a possibility.
Maybe, maybe not, but Warnick's book gives me hope that whether we stay or go, we are equipped to learn to be happy wherever we are. Relationships require time and effort, and that's even true of the relationships we have with our cities and towns. The love we have for a place can grow if we put the work into it, so no matter where we go or if we stay, we can follow sound advice for how to make a destination a home.