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There are many clichés about where you “should” live to maximize life satisfaction.  On Facebook people living in places like Arizona try to convince you to move to their state for the “better weather” (never mind that most FB complaints about the snow in northern states of the United States, for example, are just chatter and not actual requests for information about where they should be seeking real estate). You also hear that life in Europe is “better,” because somehow things are savored more, or the people are deeper or just more appealing. Or the shoes are classier.  Or the design world is better.  Whatever.

But the fact is that there are no concrete features of places that make them better places to live (e.g., see my post “Weather Report”).  People sometimes just feel more complete and satisfied “at home,” which might not be Tucson or Santa Monica or Amsterdam. This raises the question of where home actually is. I admit that I did not read the sociological literature on “home” and on “belonging” before writing this post, and perhaps I should have.  But even without reading the scholarly literature, most of us are aware that there are completing contradictory clichés about “home.”

On the one hand, “home is where the heart is” and “there is no place like home” (as we learn in the Wizard of Oz).  On the other hand, “you can never go home.”  Actually, whether wrong or right, these clichés only seem contradictory. “You can never go home” does not actually mean that you would be unhappy living where you grew up. The expression, I think, more precisely means that home isn’t as you remember it, particularly if you have not been back lately.  On this point the psychological literature is in agreement.  Research shows that people tend to remember locations and people from their childhood with respect to their physical relationship to those things at that time. So, we remember our school buildings as being larger and our school principals as being taller than those building and those principals seem now, when we encounter them as adults. They seemed large and tall to us because we were small and short as children and our memory is based on the perspective of the child we were. Psychological impressions are also formed in particular life contexts, and so things that are remembered as being funny or fabulous may no longer seem this way when encountered anew.

Maybe "there is no place like home" and "home is where the heart is."  But then, where is that home? 

After having lived 9 years in France, my husband and our four boys flew to Madison, Wisconsin at the end of August, 2006, leaving me in Padua, Italy, where I was teaching a summer school course. Three days later I boarded a plane in Venice with a large suitcase, and flew to Madison myself.  The family picked me up and drove me to the house where we would live for a year, in a neighborhood right in the city, not very far from the university where we’d be taking our sabbatical.  We drove down a street lined with large trees and houses that varied from brick to stone to tutor to 1920s “balloon frame” wooden structures. I stepped out of the car on that perfect summer evening and my (now) friend Anne passed by carrying a glass of red wine in her hand.  “Hi! You must be Paula.  Come to the park, we are all watching a movie there this evening.”

I remember that moment so clearly that it is like a Flashbulb Memory. Flashbulb memories, which may or may not be exceptional or qualitatively different from other memories, are what psychologists term the moments that we recall in incredible detail; every aspect as clear as day. Some people have these memories of the instant they heard that JFK had been shot. I have such a memory of the second that I saw (on television) the space shuttle Challenger exploding in mid air in 1986.

Anyway, Anne passed by, and I looked at the house and the people and I smelled the smells of a city in the north of the United States, with its particular trees, flowers, pavement, lakes, and humidity, and I was home.  Since I grew up mostly in Chicago and not in Madison, although I went to university there, I had to ask myself, what makes this place feel like home?  And why is that feeling so damn good? 

Some people, especially ex-patriots who have been repeatedly ex-patriated, claim that “home” is wherever their immediate family is. When they are with their family, they are home.  I get this general idea, but I do not agree.  There are places that are nice, and where the family is. 

And then there is home. 

Perhaps what feels like “home” is a combination of wanting to live in a place “just like this” and a sufficient level, a tipping point, of a feeling of familiarity. I didn’t grow up in a house, but in apartment buildings in Chicago and for two years, New York City.  Kids did not knock on our door and suggest that we come out to play. Groups of kids did not play Ghosts in the Graveyard or Capture the Flag at night on the park or go down to a lake to take out a canoe or kayak.  We didn’t go Christmas caroling door to door, and we didn’t have neighborhood Halloween parades or back yards. I wanted those things, but I didn’t have them.  How did I know I wanted them?  I believe I extracted the desire from children’s books. Except for Eloise who lived in the Plaza Hotel -- indeed, the penthouse -- every other child seemed to live in a house on Catalpa Street.*

At the same time, I did grow up with other things that I rediscovered in Madison.  For instance, I grew up with smiling and outgoing Midwesterners. Summer rains drew a gorgeous rich smell out of the pavement. And we walked to local tennis courts to play under lights in the evening.  Falling snow stirred us to run outside to have snowball fights and to sled on the slightest incline. Seasonal changes, and day length and day light hours were all the same in Chicago as in Madison.  

I can guess that these things matter in a primitive way, but I can not prove it.  What these considerations suggest, though (consistent with the psychological literature), is that listing the pros and cons of what appear to be criteria of life satisfaction and having the feeling of being "home" do not have much to do with each other.  Not very much at all.




* from Pliss, L. That Summer on Catalpa Street.

Paula NiedenthalComment