Dream house

I’ve experienced some major life transformations over the past few years—some simply related to my stage of life and others a little more dramatic and unexpected.  Like a good psychologist, I’ve self-administered some of the better-known instruments for measurements of stress levels
and the results most often suggest that if an average day in my life was represented by an alpine skiing adventure, then I’ve been spending far too much of my time on the double black diamond runs, and not nearly enough time in the lodge relaxing in front of a warm fire.

 We all have twists and turns in our lives—some bigger than others—and we do our best to find ways to cope, hopefully in adaptive ways, by seeking greater insight into what makes us tick.  It’s not unusual for people to try to use what they know—to apply their own special areas of expertise to solve their personal problems.  What other choices do we really have?  We see the unfolding of our lives through the lens of our own past experiences.

 I’m an environmental psychologist.  I’m a great believer in the power of physical context to influence thoughts, feelings and behavior, so it seemed natural enough to try to get some answers to my own deep and personal questions by thinking hard about where I’ve been in a very literal sense.  And what better places to go looking for answers than to those most intimate of spaces, my homes?

 With all of this in mind, I’ve begun a personal experiment, a pilgrimage if you like, in which I try to re-visit every home I’ve had since the beginning of my life.  As an immigrant to Canada, a member of an extended family with a greater than average share of migratory restlessness, and a traveling academic, I’ve torn through more than my share of residences so far—24 of them to be exact.  These homes have been spread over three continents—Europe, North America, and Australia—so my pilgrimage is going to take some time.

 I began the work this past spring by visiting my first two homes, both of them in Great Britain.  I sent a short letter to the two addresses, completely on spec, telling them what I wanted to do.  I was thrilled when I received an email from the strangers living in one of my old houses, inviting me to visit them.  What’s more, it turned out that these people were not quite the strangers I had imagined.  They had purchased my family home from my parents almost 50 years ago and they recalled that when they viewed the home they had seen me as a very young boy, playing in the back yard. I had lived in this home for only a few years just prior to immigrating to Canada, but they were pivotal years for me.  This was the home in which I had uttered my first sentences, made my first friends, survived my first day of school and experienced my first crush.  What would it be like to return to the physical source of those ancient memories?

 It would take more than one short post to tell you about everything that happened on that visit but one surprising discovery stood out for me above all others.  What is even more remarkable is that this revelation did not strike home, so to speak, until long after the visit had ended.  A week after I returned to Canada, I was walking around in my current home, purchased about a year ago. I realized that, apart from some differences in scaling, my current home has exactly the same layout as my childhood home in England.  Could this explain why, when I first saw this house, I took out my checkbook within about 15 minutes of stepping through the front door, knowing that this was my house and I had to have it?  Could some faint resonance between the spaces of my childhood home and my current abode have even played a part in this sudden urge to embark on this type of pilgrimage?

 I’ve thought about this connection between my two homes a great deal, and as I discuss this finding with friends, quite a few of them are now realizing that their favorite home spaces are those that most closely resemble their childhood spaces.  I’ve also recalled a riveting discussion that I had with a man who phoned me during a radio show appearance a couple of years ago.  He told me that he, too, had rushed into the purchase of a house, feeling a primal attraction that he felt powerless to resist.  In his case, though, when he realized that this new home resembled his childhood home, it dredged up for him many painful memories of an unhappy childhood.  Because circumstances prevented him from moving again, the man had become involved in an agonizing and expensive chase with himself to try to mask some of those early memories by means of house renovations.  I could hear the anguish in his voice.

 Realtors often say that when their clients find the house that’s right for them they will know it within a few seconds of walking in the front door.  Given this, they advise sellers to work hard to make the entry door and foyer of their house shine brightly.  But what if that immediate strong response comes not from the vendor’s spit and polish but from a deeply ingrained psychological connection between the unfolding spaces of the home that’s for sale and the personal history of the buyer?  It’s worth thinking about. 

About the Author

Colin Ellard, Ph.D.

Colin Ellard, Ph.D., is the director of the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and the author of You Are Here.

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