“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
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.
But, of course, it’s not as simple as identifying your ideal home and uprooting your whole life to go there. Moving is costly and scary.
You probably have your own Barcelona or Minnesota, somewhere that has a highly topophilic place in your heart. Perhaps you sometimes daydream about going back—but then you snap out of it. Moving is a huge commitment, and not one to be made on a synesthetic whim. The cost of a big move is prohibitive for many people who might like to find a new home. Even if work and family circumstances make it possible, the idea of starting a new job, making new friends, changing schools, facing the DMV—it’s too much for many.
I have moved between states or countries 11 times in my adult life—once as recently as 2019—and it is always hard. Far more taxing than the logistics is the social adjustment. It came as no surprise to me to read one Dutch and German study showing that recent movers report having more unhappy days in a two-week testing period than people who hadn’t moved.
Perhaps for these reasons, in recent years people have been moving less and less, according to U.S. Census data. In 1964, the year I was born, more than 20 percent of the population changed homes. In 2000, it was a little over 16 percent. In 2019, it was under 10 percent.
But the social costs of moving are manageable. People often commit errors when they move that make them feel more lonely and isolated than is necessary. For example, the Dutch researchers found that when people move, they tend to spend less time than people who already live in that place on “active leisure” like exercise and hobbies, and more time on the computer. It’s hard to imagine something more self-destructive than looking at social media when you are lonely.
In her book This Is Where You Belong, the author Melody Warnick looks at the evidence on moving and happiness and argues that a large part of the unhappiness people suffer at the outset of arriving in a new place can be mitigated or avoided with a number of practices, including actively exploring your new neighborhood instead of holing up in a new home, doing the things that made you happy in your old home, and socializing with new people. If you are asking how one can socialize when no one invites you anywhere, the answer is to start having people you meet over to your place. I can vouch for this idea: When we move, we make it a point to have at least two dinners at our house per month in the first year. It helps a lot.
Furthermore, “moving” is relative. For some, the topophilic ideal—or the only financially manageable option, under current circumstances—might be to a neighborhood just across town. Smaller moves mitigate social costs as well as economic costs, and could still provide happiness benefits. Perhaps the other neighborhood has more space, or is closer to loved ones—or maybe it just has nicer rain.
Perhaps the biggest barrier for you is the sheer audacity of moving for a feeling. The reward from moving just because you want to is hard to defend logically. Some people will think you are crazy, which brings me to my last point.
Some years ago, I wrote a textbook on social entrepreneurship. Among the entrepreneurs I studied, I noticed a tendency to put personal capital at risk in exchange for explosive rewards—rewards that can be hard to see at the time the risk is taken, but that the entrepreneurs intuitively feel will come. As the economist Joseph Schumpeter described the entrepreneur’s impulse, “there is the dream and the will to found a private kingdom.”
Not everyone is a business starter, of course. But you can still be an entrepreneur in the truest sense, occupied in the enterprise of building your life, your private kingdom. And sometimes, that means risking your emotional capital for explosive rewards that you feel in your heart will come.