What Makes Your Favorite Place, Favorite?

14 Nov

                                                                                                                  

              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.

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