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Homesickness: A Sign of Weakness or Strength?

"Transform the grief of separation to nostalgia."

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

“You leave home, you move on and you do the best you can.” In her song, The House That Built Me, musician Miranda Lambert describes a feeling experienced by many in our highly mobile culture. High levels of mobility interfere with attachment to place. Does attachment to place play a role in our psychological well-being? Across time and culture, attachment to home had long been considered natural and healthy. Attitudes toward love of home began to change after homesickness had been labeled a disease in 1688. As exploration and territorial expansion began to view mobility as beneficial and in some cases necessary, the reluctance to leave home behind became a practical problem. By 1898, Kline, one of the early psychologists, argued that science supports the migratory impulse as healthy and attachment to home an obstacle to well-being. Kline contrasted two types of personality. He praised the “cosmopolitan” migrant as one who “has manifold interests, and finds profitable objects and kindred spirits in a variety of situations . . . in the commercial, speculative, daring, progressive, macroscopic interests of the world.” Kline demeaned the lover of home as “provincial, plodding and timid,” whose interests are “identified with the conservative and microscopic affairs of society.”

The view of attachment to home as maladaptive led psychologists to explore ways of preventing and treating the unhealthy condition of homesickness. Is love of home a disorder? Or has it become an inconvenience in a world relying on mobility for economic, technological, and social progress? Empirical research has not yet produced definitive answers to such questions. A number of studies have suggested that homesickness can be associated with psychological difficulties such as loneliness, depression, anxiety, difficulty adjusting to new situations, and psychosomatic health problems. Given that being away from home can be accompanied by the sadness of missing it, one wonders why we form such powerful emotional bonds to our home. Surely, attachment is at least partly the product of all the wonderful experiences we enjoyed during our childhood. As poet Robert Frost famously explained, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Our bond extends beyond enjoyable experiences. It encompasses unconditional love, commitment, loyalty and enduring connectedness.

When you leave, the essential components of home go with you, because home has shaped much of who you are. Clearly, the people and events that occur within a home have a great influence on a person’s personality. But does the make a difference? The significance we ascribe to time is obvious. Anniversaries, deadlines, start dates, end dates—we mark time in many ways for many reasons. Less apparent is the importance of place. A place can acquire its value by virtue of the events that happened there. As noted by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg: “We can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it.” A century and a half later, people continue to visit the site where the soldiers “gave the last full measure of devotion.” While time is abstract, place is concrete. We cannot hold in our hands the love, the joy, and the sacrifices that we experienced as we were growing up, but we can see and touch the place where those experiences occurred.

What’s more, we internalize aspects of the place that housed so much of our life. If we grew up in a small town, we come to think of ourselves as “small town” people. We acknowledge that you can take the person out of the town, but you can’t take the town out of the person. Essential elements of the place where we were raised become interwoven into our identity, in part because place affords some opportunities and impedes others. Even simple features can make a difference. Front porches foster a greater sense of community via neighborly conversations and exchanges, whereas gated entrances discourage free social interchanges.

To the extent that our experiences were positive, we might welcome identification with our home. We internalize facets of home even if we associate them with adverse experiences—often by reacting against them, and at times by assimilating negative feelings toward ourselves into low self-esteem or self-deprecation. When our feelings are sufficiently negative, we might leave and seek a new beginning in a new place.

Efforts to prevent homesickness must contend with a paradox. Although research findings have been inconsistent, homesickness seems to be more likely when children have had prior experiences with separation from home as well as when they had had little or no prior periods away. If homesickness is the price we pay for attachment to a strong loving home, would anyone want to diminish the quality of a child’s home to prevent the possibility of future homesickness? In fact, research suggests that more unstable homes, characterized by greater anxiety and insecure relationships, place a child at higher risk for later homesickness. To deal with homesickness that interferes with adjustment to new situations, more promising approaches are those that help a person use the foundation of their secure loving home to cope with the stresses and challenges encountered in later life. Psychologists Averill and Sundararajan recounted seeing on a badge in a souvenir shop in Taiwan: “Transform the grief of separation to nostalgia.” Returning home, if only in memory, can remind us of our worth, as we had once been loved unconditionally. It can revive the feelings of hope and optimism that are the essence of childhood. Rather than pathologizing attachment to home, we need to understand how it can benefit us, especially in times of loneliness or separation. Appreciating how we have been shaped, but are not controlled, by our place of origin is key to preserving continuity, integrity, and authenticity of self while allowing for personal growt

In her song about visiting her childhood home, Lambert explained: “I thought if I could touch this place or feel it, this brokenness inside me might start healing. Out here it’s like I’m someone else; I thought that maybe I could find myself.”

Further reading

Anderson, D. (2010). Dying of nostalgia: Homesickness in the Union Army during the Civil War. Civil War History, 56, 247-282.

Batcho, K. I., Nave, A. M., & DaRin, M. L. (2011). A retrospective survey of childhood experiences. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 531-545.

Batcho, K. I. (2013). Nostalgia: The bittersweet history of a psychological construct. History of Psychology, 16, 165-176.

Douglas, T., & Shamblin, A. (2009). The house that built me [Recorded by M. Lambert]. On Revolution [CD]. Nashville, TN: Columbia Nashville.

Matt., S. J. (2007). You can’t go home again: Homesickness and nostalgia in U.S. history. The Journal of American History, September, 469-497.

Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Nauta, M. (2015). Homesickness: A systematic review of the scientific literature. Review of General Psychology, 19, 157-171.

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