Wellbeing enhanced more by places than objects


What poets and mystics have taught for centuries has been confirmed in a study at Surrey University: We experience deep connections to beloved physical spaces that cannot be replaced by abstractions or symbols. From The Guardian:

The poet WH Auden is credited with first coining the word “topophilia” to describe a strong emotional pull to a special place.

Now scientific research, using cutting-edge brain imaging, suggests Auden was on to something. According to a study commissioned by the National Trust, people experience intense feelings of wellbeing, contentment and belonging from places that evoke positive memories far more than treasured objects such as photographs or wedding rings.

A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study commissioned by the NT set out to “understand this visceral but intangible feeling more deeply”.

The power of special places exerts a magnetic pull on us. What would motivate people to labor for generations to construct Stonehenge, or the Cahokia Indian Mound? What strange fire spurs warriors to defend their homeland against invaders against impossible odds? Even in this age of global mobility, there burns in all of us a need to connect with the sacred and the sentimental. It’s basic to our identity.

Ecology activist and writer Charlene Spretnak has this to say about the vital role natural places play in the human psyche:

Even children who have been schooled in modernity’s radical discontinuity between humans and nature often have a profound engagement with a natural place — a summer camp, a grandparent’s farm, or a hideaway spot near home. Throughout their lives they carry in their minds that sense of place, a place they came to know with a child’s deep capacity for personal response …

In the modern worldview, the sense of place was no longer to be important. After all, modern society lives on top of nature. Modern furniture and modern architecture (the International style) are liberated from any “constraining” references to community, tradition, or place. Yet the importance of place, both for its subtle influences on the human and for its relevance as an ecosocial frame of reference, is now making itself felt. The resurgence of place is also behind hundreds of thousands of community-based alternatives to the dominance of the global economy. p. 27, The Resurgence of the Real

Certain locales acquire meaning from our cherished memories of the people and events of which we were once a part. No wonder we’re able to rediscover contentment, a sense of belonging, and wellbeing from them — those memories are an essential part of who we are. MRI scans reveal that returning to these places affects the same part of the brain that processes deep emotions. This research confirms old truths we have too long denied or ignored.

21 thoughts on “Wellbeing enhanced more by places than objects”

  1. Mike, thank you for this great post that contains so much wisdom and proven truths. I have a great interest in the subject and know by experience how amazing fMRI is.

    Most importantly though, we really know, deep down the truth. You can suddenly be faced with a place or nature you haven’t seen for long and burst into tears without reason. The emotion can be that strong.

    As I am moving within some months I will take this factor into consideration more than anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello, Mike.

    My wife and I started going to, and falling in love with Cape Cod 20 years ago. Till then it had never occurred to me that there might be a locale/environment in which I felt very much at home.

    Thanks for the article. It’s a good one.

    Neil S.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I, who have moved around much in my life, even between continents, can relate to this. This year I moved from Napa Valley to Santa Cruz but I have lived in the Monterey Bay before and love it. My children grew up here and my daughter graduated from UCSC. I’ve not been writing posts because I’m working full time but the post I’ve been contemplating is: In A Better Place. And this may refer to the physical place as well as to the emotional place of well being.
    Thank you for the post.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Your post comes with bittersweet timing. We are poised to evacuate our home here in the Napa Valley, as we have been all week. Friends and family members have lost everything but their lives, while we have been spared so far. But I have yet to find the courage to even consider the loss of so many of our favorite drives and haunts, here in this beautiful region that has felt so deeply home to me since moving here four years ago.


    1. Jan,

      So sorry to hear this. At least you and your family are uninjured. I sincerely hope you don’t have to evacuate, but if you must, you must. Stay strong.


  5. This post confirms what we know in our heart. The older we get, the more we appreciate places rather than things. As a preschool teacher, I see what nature gives to and does for children, versus toys. Thank you for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve always understood the strong affinity I’ve had for certain places – stronger, actually than for the people I shared those spaces with. When my grandson died, I thought I had progressed well through the stages of grief, but it wasn’t until I visited Sarasota, where I went to college and found my feet, that I truly wept. Those tears – possible only in that place – washed me clean. I’m glad to learn that there is a word for these strong feelings – topophilia. (What about a story with a place as a main character?)


    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your grandson.

      As for a story with the place as a main character, almost anything by Michener and Faulkner would qualify.


  7. As someone with one foot each in the science and spiritual camps, I always get excited when things come full circle. Thank you for sharing this, I hadn’t come across this study before you mentioned it!

    Liked by 1 person

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