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How to Renovate Your Emotional Home

Forget your zip code. Your emotional home is where you really live.

Key points

  • Our emotional home represents where we spend most of our emotional time and energy.
  • Our emotional home may affect our quality of life even more than our physical location and circumstances.
  • Therapy, relationships, healthy habits, and physical well-being can all improve our emotional homes.

It is possible that you're overlooking the primary purpose of psychotherapy. Many people — including, sometimes, the therapists themselves — do. You see, beneath the cognitive, humanistic, and psychodynamic therapy styles, below the thought records, gratitude journals, dream analyses, and bus metaphors, and even beyond the beaucoup of personal, relational, and behavioral problems that bring people into therapy, there exists a unifying purpose: to improve a person's emotional home. Describing what this emotional home is, why it matters, and how it can be changed, is the purpose of this blog.

Understanding your emotional home

When asked where you live, you likely reply with a street address and a zip code. These parameters define the location of your physical home. Your home is your primary residence, a location of intended safety, predictability, and perhaps occasional festivity. It is also where you probably spend the majority of your 24-hour day. Research shows that the location of our physical homes matters enormously. If a person's physical home is located in a higher quality location, for example, the benefits are substantial: improved health, happiness, relationship quality, even a longer lifespan1. Contrasting effects become true when the same person's home is located poorly. A home in a lower socio-economic status neighborhood, for instance, increases exposure to crime and pollution, risk of mental illness, and higher rates of premature mortality and morbidity.

Although no one asks the whereabouts of our emotional home, its location may be even more important to our quality of life than our physical addresses. Our emotional homes represent where we spend most of our emotional time and energy. And the essence of our emotional experiences frequently bears little resemblance to that suggested by our physical surroundings.

  • A pessimist may physically dwell in an elegant Manhattan high-rise yet emotionally live in a world of danger and doubt.
  • A person caught by the cycle of addiction may feel nothing but the longing for their substance even when surrounded by loving family and friends.
  • Sources of fleeting physical pleasure are cheap and abundant to us in modernity while sources of meaning, connection, and contentment remain rare and priceless.

Like the thermostat setting in your home or apartment, our emotional home reflects our default way of feeling. External events may cause us to "visit" other emotional locations temporarily, yet unless we've developed strategies to purposely reposition our emotional homes in a secure place, our feelings will soon return to their baseline setting.

Renovating your emotional home

Although we may rent or buy our physical homes, emotional homes are heavily learned. Shaped by parents, schooling, and culture — in combination with biological predispositions — we develop a consistent pattern of feeling and thinking about ourselves, other people, and the world around us. This emotional perception of reality becomes our "home". If we're fortunate, we have built the equivalent of an emotional castle, offering spectacular views and protection against the hardships of living. If we're less fortunate, however, we have built an emotional prison instead, one that may confine and punish us for a lifetime.

This is where effective psychotherapy closely resembles the process of home renovation. During an episode of a home renovation television program, determined homeowners — armed with professional assistance or their own know-how — routinely transform dilapidated properties into dream homes over the course of weeks or months. The end result sometimes bears remarkably little resemblance to the starting product despite being in the same location. The necessary ingredients for successful home renovation? Hard work, skill, patience, and the willingness to make major changes.

Thomas Rutledge
Source: Thomas Rutledge

As shown in the figure above, renovating our emotional home involves most of the same steps as restoring a fixer-upper house. The crucial difference lies in the types of tools required for emotional home renovation2. Research shows that there exist multiple proven strategies for consistently upgrading the quality of our emotional experiences, without drugs or medicines. For some, the right therapy and therapist may be the most effective strategy. Whereas for others, engaging in regular exercise, building deeper relationships, consistent spiritual practices, pursuing personal development goals, or improving physical health and health habits may be equally or potentially even more beneficial. Despite their apparent differences, all these methods simply represent different tools for improving the quality of our emotional homes.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1. Shanahan KH, Subramanian SV, Burdick KJ, Monuteaux MC, Lee LK, Fleegler EW. Association of Neighborhood Conditions and Resources for Children With Life Expectancy at Birth in the US. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(10):e2235912. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.35912

2. Young SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007 Nov;32(6):394-9. PMID: 18043762; PMCID: PMC2077351.

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