Do we underestimate the power of place as a source of psychological richness in our lives?
Of the many possible sources of meaning and value in our lives, one of the most underappreciated may well be the power of place. 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 itself, 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 senior 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.)
Single people often mention the ways in which they are slighted in the workplace. For example, employers sometimes think 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.
Many single people are deeply embedded in their communities, having created and nurtured their social convoys who sail through life with them. For them, it could be a special hardship to have to pick up and leave, then start cultivating a personal community from scratch in their new location.
Community is the people-centred meaning of place. I wonder whether employers also overlook the significance of the physical, geographical meaning of place. 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 trails winding through mountains and woods.
Environmental psychologists are among those who recognise the significance of space. They have found, for instance, that certain environments are 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 realise 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.
To me, an appreciation of the power of place is part of my larger project of recognizing the many ways our lives can be joyful, meaningful, and psychologically rich. It is one more way of saying that there are many ways of flourishing other than finding a romantic partner and putting that person at the centre of our lives.