Most of us have a favorite place, whether it’s an easy chair at home, a lakeside cabin, or that little coffeehouse around the corner. Growing up, one of my wife Diane’s favorite places was her grandmother’s cottage inDoor County,Wisconsin. I suppose mine was our garage, where I could play with hazardous tools, make toy soldiers out of molten lead, and avoid the persecution of my older brother, Norman. My mother always preferred the hills of Southern Missouri, where she grew up. My father’s special place, however, was the basement. It was, damp, isolated, and cool and had an old refrigerator full of beer. For most of the summer he lived under our house like a troll.
As an adult, Diane has been on an unrelenting quest to find the ideal place to get away— the most comfortable hotel or most fun vacation spot– one that we could return to every year. A beautiful log cabin on a creek in mountains ofNorth Carolinadid not measure up and Diane has continued searching all overFlorida,Georgia,Kentucky, andIndiana. She now intends to investigateMyrtle Beach. I think this must stem from her Norwegian ancestry. One of our son’s friends fromNorwaytold us that almost everyone there has a get-a-way cabin or cottage, where they spend a great deal of time. It’s like some kind of Scandinavian law. Diane must not have found the perfect place yet, since our granddaughter asked her why we never go back to the same place twice.
Finnish psychologist Kalevi Korpela, who specializes in the study of favorite places, says that most people employ such places to mentally and emotionally restore themselves. This restorative capacity of favorite places is rooted in a few basic qualities. (1) Favorite places are removed or distanced from everyday stresses and worries. (2) Such places have desired features that hold a personal fascination for us. (3) Finally our unique emotional needs are addressed by aspects of the environment. For example, if we require peace and quiet, our favorite place provides it. If stimulation and excitement is called for, then those features are present.
Korpela found that adults who regularly visited their favorite places report having more energy and fewer physical complaints, than people who were instructed to avoid their favorite places.
Just imagining favorite places can elicit feelings of relaxation and comfort. Therapists often utilize these images to treat pain and anxiety disorders. Diane used the image of floating in an inner tube, when she practiced hypnotic relaxation for the birth of our last child. On the other hand, while I was recovering from surgery a few years ago, I focused on the image of a big bottle of Oxycontin.
Many people are especially attached to the area where they grew up. Like salmon swimming upstream, we may periodically feel a need to return to our place of origin. A friend once observed that even if there was nothing left but a single tree standing in the place where you grew up, you would be compelled to periodically check the tree, just to see if it was still there. This may be true as I recently heard a fellow say that every time he drove over a certain interstate overpass he had a warm feeling because he could see the site where his childhood home was located.
University of Warwick psychologist Patricia Newell asked residents fromSenegal,Ireland, and the United States to identify their favorite places, in order to determine whether people from different cultures share similar preferences. The study found far more commonalities in place preference than differences. People from around the world generated almost identical categories of favorite places. Overall, 61% of them identified some part of the natural environment as their favorite place and 38% chose their own home. Of course, it is not surprising that we selected our own homes, since we often go to great lengths to make sure they have those features we most desire. Our preferences for natural environments may be based in our need to reconnect with nature, as we progressively have grown more alienated from our outdoor roots.
Strikingly similar preferences show up in a study of favorite places at a boy’s summer camp. Regardless of age approximately 22% of the boys chose the lake as their favorite place, 12% picked their cabin, and 8% identified the campfire area.
Urban planer Erika Lew writes, that our surroundings shape how we live and how we feel. She says just as places can make us feel good, they can also have the opposite effect. A negative association to a place is dramatically portrayed in the movie Forrest Gump, in which the character Jenny returns to the abandoned house, where she was sexually abused as a child. Jenny throws rocks at the house until she is exhausted and can’t find any more ammunition. Forrest gives the classic comment, “I guess sometimes, there just aren’t enough rocks.”
Since our positive and negative associations to places are often learned in our individual childhoods, they aren’t necessarily shared. They may lie at the bottom of family conflicts, like whether to go to the mountains or the beach this summer. In extreme cases, they can lead to separate vacations.
When Diane’s father retired, he insisted in moving out to the country, next to his uncle’s property– a site that possibly held pleasant childhood memories. I once visited “The Land”, as the family called the place, and in the barn, I wasn’t surprised to see a familiar sight—an old refrigerator fill of beer. The place never held any attraction for Diane’s mother, who wasn’t comfortable there. A more sociable person, she prefer living in town, where she quickly returned, after her husband passed away.
So next summer when the pressures of work, school, or family, get to be too much, retreat to your favorite place and enjoy all those positive associations. If you just can’t agree on where to go, then maybe its time to find a new place and start building some shared positive experiences.