Shopping for a home: topophilia and the love of place
In the Summer of 2015, I took myself on a trip to Lisbon.
It’s my habit to go places with little agenda in mind: mostly I just wander the streets, going where people are, eating local food, drinking the local drinks, and trying to absorb something of a place’s history, people, and culture.
I’d never been to Lisbon before, but within a few hours of landing I had fallen completely in love.
When I emerged from the subway from the airport, it was at the Baixa-Chiado station in the city center. One of the first things I saw was the bronze statue of Fernando Pessoa, a celebrated Portuguese writer. It’s located on the street outside a busy café that looks like something out of La Belle Epoque, a place where writers and artists and musicians would gather to discuss politics and begin love affairs.
I checked into a private room at a hostel overlooking Luís de Camões Square, named for the great 16th century Portugese poet. At the edge of the square sat another statue, this one of António Ribeiro — a poet, satirist, and one of Camões’ contemporaries. As I was learning, Lisbon adores its writers and poets.
After checking in, I took a walk down toward the water, through the Arco da Rua Augusta and into a square where I could order a beer while looking out onto the Tagus River. I sat there observing the ships moving down the river and toward the ocean and thought about the other people for which Portugal is world-famous: its explorers.
I’d been there just a few hours, and I felt very much at home.
Since then, I’ve visited Lisbon twice more, once with my girlfriend, and another time with my son and my grandmother. I could see myself living there one day. In fact, I very nearly did buy a fixer-upper in the old Alfama neighborhood, where the sounds of fado music ring through narrow, steep cobblestone streets where no cars can go.
At the time, buying that house felt just one step too impetuous for me, though. My romance with Lisbon was just that — a flight of fancy, a good time on a vacation, perhaps, but no place to make a home.
Can moving to a different city make you happy?
I’ve always thought the answer to this question was a definitive no. Moving to another city will not solve your problems because your problems are inside you. I always thought that consistent day-dreaming about living in other locations — Europe, the mountains, the ocean, South America, some small farming village somewhere, you name it — only served to mask personal issues that I needed to deal with then and there.
A few years ago, my opinion on that subject began to change.
First, I listened to an interview with writer Johann Hari, about his book Lost Connections. For me, Hari’s book overturned decades of conventional wisdom about the causes of depression.
My previous understanding was that depression was largely a matter of brain chemistry. Specifically, an inability to produce enough serotonin. This could be corrected either with drugs, or (my preference) through exercise and diet.
Notably, neither of those solutions has anything to do with where you live.
Hari’s book, on the other hand, argues the primary causes of depression are not biochemical, but rather environmental. Specifically, the cause is disconnection. He outlines root causes of depression. Six of them have more to do with your environment than your brain chemistry:
- Disconnection from meaningful work
- Lack of social connection & meaningful friendships
- Loss of meaningful shared values
- Loss of status (high in places with extreme income inequality)
- Disconnect from nature
- Disconnect from a secure and hopeful future
Hari also acknowledges that genetics, childhood trauma, and other changes in the brain can all also have an impact. But those are already understood and widely accepted.
What is not widely accepted, is that we can become happier by changing our environment. In other words: moving to a new place might actually work.
Why I left DC
I first moved to Washington, DC for a girl.
It was 2006, she had been accepted to graduate school at American University, and I decided to move to DC with her from our home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
At first, I loved DC. It’s a great city for an ambitious young person to pursue a career, especially one interested in politics, climate, and the environment. I found work at an environment NGO that invested in clean energy and reforestation projects. I had many of the things Hari mentions: hope for the future, meaningful work, good relationships, and rising status.
Ten years later, my opinion had changed.
A lot had happened. I’d become a father, for one. That had led me to move just over the border into Maryland, where apartments were a bit bigger and a little cheaper.
Meanwhile, most of my close friends had moved away in a kind of agonizing slow drip. DC is nothing if not a city of transients, and that transience had begun to show.
First, it was the couple I’d gone to college with. They’d married and had kids, and decided to move away when the husband got a job working in land conservation in Montana. Then, it was my friends from grad school. They’d also married and had kids — and now they were off to Portland, Oregon, where the wife had got a teaching position and where they were closer to family.
The last straw was a close friend I’d met through kitesurfing. He and I would grab whatever spare days we could muster between parenting and work to drive the three hours to the Delaware coast, which was the nearest kitesurfing spot. Those were long, exhausting days of driving, but they were worth it.
He and his wife, both biologists, decided to move to the Massachusetts coast for work. There, they bought a house three times the size of the one they’d had in DC. In the backyard, they keep chickens. The new place is minutes from a great kitesurfing spot.
It wasn’t just the loss of friendships though. It was also tough to form new ones. It's tough in any big city, really. People are focused on work. It takes a long time to get around to the different neighborhoods. A coffee date or finding time to grab a beer might have to be planned weeks ahead of time.
Meanwhile, it’s tough to get to the outdoors from DC — the real outdoors. The nearest decent rock climbing is a two hour drive north to Pennsylvania. The nearest really good climbing is five hours to New River Gorge in West Virginia. If you’re into hiking, the only real mountains are at least an hour and a half west to the Shenandoah. And the ocean, well — I’ve already mentioned how far that was.
I was coming to grips with the idea that the city itself was what made social connection so difficult. The city itself made it hard to get outdoors.
Meanwhile, the intervening years had not been kind to other criteria on Hari’s list. Meaningful values? Try the 2008 financial crisis, a painfully slow recovery, widening income inequality, and the rise of Donald Trump. Hope for the future? See previous, and add to that a climate crisis which humanity seems uniquely incapable of taking seriously.
And speaking of the climate crisis, by then I’d transitioned from working on environmental issues and political campaigns to working in corporate marketing. After years of climate advocacy, I’d become seriously disillusioned with our country’s capacity for change, and I doubted my work there could help move the needle in any meaningful way. Going into the corporate world meant more money — but there was no getting around the fact that the feeling of doing truly meaningful work I’d had when I first moved to DC was now a thing of the past.
I desperately wanted to recapture the things I’d had earlier in life. But how?
Recognizing the role of place in your life
When you start to realize it might be the place itself that is the problem — and not you — your mind starts to resist.
You know the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are”?
It means different things in different contexts, but the one I’m thinking about has to do with the thought that we would be happier if only we could live somewhere else. We think that, and then we snap ourselves back to reality.
“This isn’t about a different place,” we tell ourselves.
But why isn’t it?
So many of the measures of a happy life have to do with the kind of social connections which can be extremely difficult to build and maintain in big cities. Shows like Friends or How I Met Your Mother aside, a lot of city living can feel more like an Edward Hopper painting than a friendly sitcom.
Over the past year, Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist and Harvard professor, has been publishing a series in The Atlantic about how to build a better life, including a meta review of studies on the sources of happiness.
In January, he published a piece titled, Find the Place You Love. Then Move There.
“If where you live isn’t truly your home, and you have the resources to make a change, it could do wonders for your happiness,” Brooks wrote.
He starts with the anecdotal — the man who moved from Minnesota to Northern California, but who will forever think of those “bone-chilling winters” in that northern land as his home; and also Brooks’ own experience of living in Barcelona in his 20s, where he married his wife and which he still remembers as the happiest time in his life.
But then Brooks turns toward the meaning of these positive associations. There is actually a word for this: topophilia.
Topophilia was popularized in 1974 by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, in a book of the same name. Topophilia is defined as “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.”
Or, as Brooks puts it: “the warm feelings you get from a place.”
Topophilia is what I felt for Lisbon nearly as soon as I got there.
In fact, I feel that warm feeling for a lot of places. I feel that way about the wide open desert of New Mexico, and the achingly beautiful way the burnt orange light hits the Sangre de Cristo mountains almost every evening at sunset. For a long time, I felt that way about Cabarete, in the Dominican Republic, which is where I learned to kitesurf and have gone back to three times since.
We have “vivid, emotional” experiences with these places, Brooks writes, leading to “unexplainable” affections:
It is worth reflecting on your strongest positive synthetic tendencies — and the place they remind you of. They are a good guide to your topophilic ideal, and thus an important factor to be aware of as you design a physical future in line with your happiness. It is notable that one of the world’s most famous happiness experts, Tal Ben-Shahar, left a teaching position at Harvard University several years ago, where he had created the university’s then-most-popular class, to return to his native Israel — because he felt the pull of this homeland.
I’ve moved around a lot in my life. As a child, my family never lived in the same house for more than two years. But there are a few places which still feel, if not like home, then a place I want to make into a home.
The White Mountains of New Hampshire
The Summer after freshman year of College, I took a job as a camp counselor in Maine. The camp was situated on Long Lake, an hour Northwest of Portland. The camp was a 30-minute drive from the New Hampshire border, and 45 minutes from the entrance to the Kancamagus Highway, the jumping off point for dozens of trailheads leading into the heart of the White Mountains.
My first year as a camp counselor, I hiked several of those mountains, along with my campers. The next year, I became the camp’s trip counselor. I led weekly trips into the wilderness, mostly to the White Mountains. I hiked the Franconias, the Presidentials, Carter Dome, and more.
The next year I became the climbing counselor. During the week, I took kids on day trips to North Conway, where I would set up single-pitch top ropes for them to get destroyed on, and on my nights and days off I’d drive to the multi-pitch trad classics of Cathedral Ledge and Whitehorse where I’d get my own butt kicked.
After one Summer a friend and I drove to Rumney, a mecca for sport climbing tucked a mile down the road from the tiny village of Rumney: one tavern, one general store, and not much else.
We camped, we climbed, and we drank beer by the campfire. In short: the formative Summers of my young adult life were spent exploring New Hampshire's mountains and cliffs.
Years later, when I started plotting an escape from Washington DC, I kept an eye on those towns that surrounded the White Mountains, especially Rumney. I paid attention to that topophilic love of place.
Finding a Climate Haven — While Following My Heart
When I wrote last month about the definition of a climate haven, I wrote about three things: a region insulated from the worst effects of climate change; a resilient community; and a sustaining property.
What I left out is what everyone talks about when they start a search for a house: finding home. Or at least, finding a place you feel you could call home.
That search can’t be undertaken without paying at least some attention to where you feel comfortable, where you have those synthetic affections, whether that’s the smell of salt in the ocean, the burnt orange light of a sunset, or fresh mountain air.
Yes, I believe everyone needs to find a property that will serve as a haven for climate change for themselves and their family. But I also believe your love of place can help anchor that search. Your nostalgia for a different time in your life might be more than just longing for the past. If you pay attention, you might actually find that it’s a guidepost toward the kind of community you’re looking for.