Home Is Where the Heart Is, but Where Is "Home"?

"Home" means so much more than just a house, so how do we decide where home is?

Posted Aug 03, 2015

A Man’s Home Is His HassleP.J. Laux

Cliparthut.com/used by permission
Source: Cliparthut.com/used by permission

Soon, I will be taking a trip back to the anthracite coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania where I grew up. 

This is a place that has been vilified as the worst region of Pennsylvania to live in and the least happy place in America. Be that as it may, it is still the place I identify as "Home" even though I have not lived there for over 40 years.  Planning this trip got me to thinking about the nature of “home” and how slippery the concept actually is.

Attachment to Place

It is no secret that individuals develop very strong emotional attachments to the places that they live.  These affectionate bonds between people and places go by a variety of names, including “Topophilia,” “Rootedness,” and “Attachment to Place.” 

A strong attachment to the place that you live results in greater satisfaction with your home and expectations of future stability in that place.  These feelings transcend attachments to other people in the area and represent a genuine affection for the physical location itself, and the passage of time strengthens our attachment to the places that we live.  Because our physical surroundings play such an important role in creating a sense of meaning and organization in our lives, it is not surprising that our sense of the place we live is closely tied to our sense of who we are.

In the "Wizard of Oz," Dorothy doesn't achieve closure until she recognizes that "There is no place like home."

Thus, the word “home” connotes more than just a house - but how exactly do we determine where “home” is?

The Concept of Home 

In a previous blog, I explored how deceptively complicated it is to ask someone “where they are from.”  In 2008, The Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 2,260 American adults.  Among other things, they asked participants to identify “the place in your heart you consider to be home.”  Thirty-eight percent of the respondents did not identify the place that they were currently living to be “home.”  Twenty-six percent reported that “home” was where they were born or raised; only 22% said that it was where they lived now. Eighteen percent identified home as the place that they had lived the longest, and 15% felt that it was where their family had come from. Four percent said that home was where they had gone to high school.

“Home” is the place where you feel in control and properly oriented in space and time; it is a predictable and secure place.  In the words of poet Robert Frost, "Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."  In short, “home” is the primary connection between you and the rest of the world.

Home for the Holidays?

The importance of returning “home for the holidays,” usually to share at least one large meal, reflects the importance of home places in maintaining the bonds between people.  Such homecoming rituals affirm and renew a person’s place in the family and often are a key factor in preserving the family’s social fabric. 

To the Zuni of the American Southwest, home is a living thing.  It is the setting for raising children, for communicating with God and the spirit world, and for life itself.  An annual ceremony in which some homes are blessed and consecrated (called the Shalako) is part of the year-ending winter solstice celebration.  Social relationships centered in the home are celebrated during the Shalako ceremony by providing food to all who visit the Shalako houses, including the symbolic feeding of the spirits of ancestors who are believed to visit during the Shalako to reestablish bonds with their families.  The ceremony strengthens bonds to the community, to the family (including dead ancestors), and to the spirits and gods by strengthening the bonds between each of these parties and the home itself.

For all people, home is the center of the world and a place of order that contrasts with the chaos elsewhere.  When asked to draw a picture of “where you live,” children and adolescents worldwide invariably center their drawings around the home, making it the anchor for everything else.  This is especially true of females; girls also give more positive and emotional evaluations of their homes than do boys.  The Tiwi of Bathurst Island (off the coast of Northern Australia) even believed that their island was the only habitable place in the world and all other places were thought of as the “land of the dead.”  The Tiwi believed that sailors shipwrecked on their island were dead spirits, and they were killed because they did not belong in the land of the living.

As you reflect upon where your home is, ask yourself why this particular place out of the many places that you may have lived stands out as the one that feels like home.  By doing so, you may also gain a deeper understanding of how you think about your self and your connection with the world at large.

For Further Reading:

  • Cohn, D., & Morin, R. (2008). Who moves?  Who stays put? Where’s home?  [pewsocial trends.org]
  • Dovey, K. (1985). Home and homelessness.  In I. Altman & C. Werner (Eds.), Home Environments.  New York: Plenum.
  • Duncan, J. S. (1985). The house as symbol of social structure.  In I. Altman & C. Werner (Eds.), Home Environments.  New York: Plenum.
  • McAndrew, F. T. (1993). Environmental Psychology. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • McAndrew, F. T. (1998). The measurement of “rootedness” and the prediction of attachment to home-towns in college students.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 18, 409-417.
  • Shumaker, S. A., & Taylor, R. B. (1983). Toward a clarification of people-place relationships: A model of attachment to place.  In N. Feimer & E. S. Geller (Eds.), Environmental psychology: Directions and perspectives.  New York: Praeger.
  • Tuan, Y. (1974). Topophilia: A study of environmental perception, attitude, and values.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Tuan, Y. (1979). Landscapes of fear. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Werner, C. M., Altman, I., & Oxley, D. (1985). Temporal aspects of homes: A transactional perspective. In I. Altman & C. Werner (Eds.), Home Environments.  New York: Plenum.

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