If where you live isn’t truly your home, and you have the resources to make a change, it could do wonders for your happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks | The Atlantic
Several years ago, I was sitting on a flight to San Francisco, when my seatmate, a man a little older than me, struck up a conversation. Perhaps you hate it when that happens; I love it. In addition to being an extrovert, I’m a social scientist, so I’m always fascinated by what I can learn about people through conversations. Have you ever wanted to know how I come up with column topics? Now you know.
The man told me he was on his way home from seeing his family in Minnesota, where he had grown up. As an adult, he had pulled up stakes, left the bone-chilling winters behind, and moved to Northern California, where he had no connections at all. He raved about the professional opportunities and great weather where he now lived, comparing them favorably to the landlocked, snowy place in which he was raised.
Something in his words sounded tinny and hollow to me. I pondered this for a moment, and then asked him, “Do you ever miss Minnesota?” He didn’t answer for a minute or two, and looked away, and I noticed that his eyes had become shiny. Softly, he said, “Minnesota will always be my home.”
Perhaps you can relate to my seatmate: feeling out of place, and as though where you live is not truly your home. That might be especially true today, when so many people have been involuntarily displaced by the pandemic or are stuck in living situations not of their own choosing.
But this upheaval could also provide an opportunity. As the economy changes, and quarantine has revealed that many jobs can be performed remotely, you might find yourself with more geographic flexibility than you have had in a long time. If you’re uncomfortable with the status quo, this time when life has been paused might be just the impetus you need to make you consider a change of place. This year could be the chance for you to move to the place where your heart resides.
There is a word for love of a place: topophilia, popularized by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1974 as all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.” In other words, it is the warm feelings you get from a place. It is a vivid, emotional, and personal experience, and it leads to unexplainable affections. One of my fellow Seattle natives made this point to me when he said he hated the rain in Boston but not Seattle. Why? “Only Seattle rain is nice.”
In his book A Reenchanted World, the sociologist James William Gibson defines topophilia as a spiritual connection, especially with nature. Oladele Ogunseitan, a microbiologist at the University of California at Irvine, demonstrates topophilia by showing that people are attracted to both objective and subjective—even unconscious—criteria. My friend’s affinity for the “Seattle rain” is probably fueled by what Ogunseitan calls “synesthetic tendency,” or the way particular, ordinary sensory perceptions affect our memory and emotions. If the smell of a fresh-cooked pie, the sound of a train whistle at night, or the feeling of a crisp autumn wind evokes a visceral memory of a particular place, you are experiencing a synesthetic tendency.
It is worth reflecting on your strongest positive synesthetic tendencies—and the place they remind you of. They are a good guide to your topophilic ideal, and thus an important factor to be aware of as you design a physical future in line with your happiness. It is notable that one of the world’s most famous happiness experts, Tal Ben-Shahar, left a teaching position at Harvard University several years ago, where he had created the university’s then-most-popular class, to return to his native Israel—because he felt the pull of his homeland.
Topophilia might not be associated with your childhood home, however. For me, all synesthetic tendencies take me not to Seattle but to Barcelona, the city where I lived in my 20s, where I got married, and the only place I have returned to year after year (except for 2020, due to the pandemic). In my life here in the United States, smells and sights will sometimes remind me of my neighborhood in Barcelona and the first home my wife and I shared there. The sound of the Catalan language (the native tongue of Barcelona, which I learned as a younger man) is like music to me.
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