Why Our Homes Make Us Happy

Having a safe place centers us and makes it easier to achieve life goals.

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The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.

The human animal is not so different from his ancestors. Just as animals have lairs and mark their territories, people have fundamental attachments to place and space. Even equating home and womb is not too far a stretch. Humans, however, add layers of significance to home and place. Physical places endure while memories and people fade, so homes and neighborhoods become "memory machines" that help us keep alive some of the strongest sources of what has given our lives meaning, well-being, and happiness.

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It's no wonder, anthropologists and aging experts say, that we often say people are going home to God when they die. And it's no wonder that we bring our fallen military heroes home to rest and that we drive all night to get home instead of stopping at a roadside motel (which, of course, promises us all the comforts of home). For many children, a sense of home and place is shaped by their room, and it can evoke strong memories and feelings decades after they've moved away.

"There is pretty strong evidence that the environment in which people live is closely linked to their well-being," says Graham Rowles, a gerontology professor at the University of Kentucky. "It's sort of like the human animal attachment to territory is built into our DNA."

"We have a need for a place that is called home," he adds. Home provides security, control, belonging, identity, and privacy, among other things. "But most of all, it's a place that provides us with a centering—a place from which we leave each morning and to which we return each evening."

American culture is strongly rooted in feelings of independence, autonomy, and control, says Robert Rubinstein, who teaches anthropology at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. "We live in a society that is concerned with freedom, and part of that development is being able to make a space for yourself, and having a central place from which to look out at the world," he says.

Rick Scheidt has spent much of his professional life talking with aging residents of the vanishing small towns that dot the prairies in Kansas and other Midwestern states. Here, sense of place is very powerful. Often, it is all that is left.

"We call it autobiographical insidedness," he says. "People look at aspects of their environment in a very personal way. I might be talking to an older women about her memories of a place, and I'd say, 'Look at that cedar tree over there. It looks like it's been through hard times and gotten hit by lightning.' And she'll look at that tree and say, 'Oh, that's third base,' drawing on memories of when she played baseball there as a child."

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Such memories become part of a person's life story, which often is central to their sense of well-being and assessment of whether their life has had meaning. "We can't understand anything else that people are telling us without understanding their life story," Rubinstein says. The role of home and sense of place in a person's life story can be significant. As people age, he notes, their life story takes on added importance. "It moves from being just a story to becoming an actual resource that people rely on to remember their place in the world and their accomplishments."

Likewise, the meaning of a person's home is enriched with memories. Habib Chaudhury teaches classes on aging and environment at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He identifies four areas where home takes on added meaning for older residents. "The first is the emotional attachment that is formed," he says, and it grows over time. "It contributes to their emotional well-being, their self-esteem, and their confidence about doing things."

Next is familiarity with their physical surroundings. This is particularly important if a person has lost some physical and cognitive abilities. Knowing their way around their home helps compensate, and being comfortable in their living space reduces stress and helps well-being.