The Place of Place in Our Lives
‘Place’ isn’t just background; sometimes it’s the main event
Posted March 28, 2011
The responses to my recent posts on solitude (here and here) have been heartening and have inspired me to keep thinking about sources of meaning and value in people's lives other than other people. I do this not to diminish the significance of our human connections, but to underscore other facets of our lives that are too often ignored.
One such consideration is place. I know that it is an emotionally powerful component of my life. I suspect that its significance is different for different people. I don't know if it matters more to people who are single, but I'd like to.
Many different senses of place are important to me. One is a very specific setting - for example, the room where I sit typing this post. Then there is the home in which the room is located, and the little town where the home is located, and the part of the country, and the country and beyond.
I crave a sense of openness and I love natural light. I lived in a small apartment for several years of graduate school, but the kitchen and living room were part of one undivided space. I spent most of my time at home in that space, and it didn't feel too small. The sliding glass doors on one end let in some light.
Many years ago, a new Assistant Professor at my previous university sublet a house for a year because a more highly ranked Professor was on sabbatical and wanted someone to live in the home while he was gone. It was a beautiful home with nice-sized, tastefully furnished rooms - except for one. The TV room was small, dark, and painted some horrible greenish hue. Yet the renter spent most of her time in that room. Was place simply not psychologically significant to her, in the way that it is to me? Or did she actually like that sort of place better than the rest of the house? (I never asked.)
Here at this blog, we have occasionally discussed the ways in which singles seem to be slighted in the workplace. One theme that comes up is that employers sometimes seem to believe that singles should be more willing to relocate than married people, because, supposedly, they 'don't have anyone.' Of course, the part about 'not having anyone' is a myth. I wonder, though, whether employers sometimes overlook something else significant - the power of place in our lives.
I could probably move just about anywhere and find a home that felt bright and open. But very few places could replicate the feel of the part of the country I'm in now. I live in a warm, green, open terrain near the ocean with lots of natural spaces. Over the weekend, someone who lives in the middle of the country told me how much she loves her city. My first thought (which I kept to myself) was, "But it is landlocked!" (Never mind that I lived in landlocked places for the first 47 years of my life.)
Environmental psychologists are among those who recognize the significance of space. They have found, for instance, that certain environments are literally more restorative than others. People who are mentally fatigued, for example, find their ability to maintain focus is more likely to be restored after experiencing environments such as lakes and hills rather than city streets or industrial zones.
Both psychologists and sociologists acknowledge the concept of attachment to place. Sociologists realize that space can create and reinforce inequality. Architects and urban planners have increasingly turned their attention to the ways in which spaces can be designed so as to encourage social interaction and a sense of safety and community.
The big question I'm trying to address is this: In addition to other people, what is important to us in our lives? Previously, I've discussed matters such as meaningful work, exercise and health, spirituality, pets, financial security, solitude, and opportunities to pursue your passions and create the life that is the most meaningful and constructive one for you. Of course, not every item on the list will matter to every individual. In the big picture, though, what else is important to us humans in addition to other humans? What else am I missing?
Berto, R. (2005). Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attentional capacity. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 249-259.
Gieryn, T. F. (2000). A space for place in sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 463-496.