You Can’t Run Away from Homesickness
You could say it started with a Venn diagram and a miniature Zen garden. The garden was in the corner of a counsellor’s office at the University of California Davis’s student health centre and had a little rake you could run through a plot of sand to ease away your stress. It was the fall of 2012, and I had recently relocated from my home, in Oakville, in the Greater Toronto Area, to Davis, a small college town outside of Sacramento, for a graduate program in American history. In the few months since I’d moved there, I had spent a lot of time crying and not much time sleeping. It wasn’t that my courses were difficult or that I wasn’t enjoying them. I felt, as I told the counsellor, “trapped.” I wanted to go home, but with a fellowship and a place in the school’s PhD program, I knew I had to stay. Dragging a rake through fake sand wouldn’t change that.
The counsellor offered me some reference sheets about stress and anxiety. One included a Venn diagram that was meant to encourage me to think about the things in my life I could control, the things in my life I couldn’t, and the things that fell somewhere in between. The counsellor talked about the importance of finding a balance and occupying that middle section where you acknowledge your agency but accept your lot. When our allotted time was up, I took the sheets home, but I didn’t go back.
I would spend five more years in the US before returning to Canada for a short stint after graduate school. It was only a year later, when I moved to Virginia, that I realized I’d been suffering from homesickness. This time, my move was predicated upon a job opportunity that seemed impossible to refuse. It was stable, it was salaried, it was a promotion, and it was in an industry I wanted to work in. Because I had no desire to leave home again, I told myself the move was temporary and I hoped the experience, in the American market no less, would help me score the ideal job back in Toronto.
I made arrangements to see a counsellor as soon as I arrived in Virginia. I told her I hadn’t wanted to leave home. She asked how I would feel about going back, but I said I’d made a commitment to myself to get through the next year; leaving any earlier would feel like giving up. I’d gotten used to blaming myself when sadness and loneliness cropped up while living abroad. I would remind myself that I’d chosen to leave home and that having had the opportunity to do so was a privilege. Whatever I was going through, I should have been able to snap out of it.
The counsellor didn’t necessarily agree with me but instead spoke plainly and simply about how leaving home was hard. She told me how she’d struggled with homesickness after moving to the US from Europe. She talked about missing specific foods at certain times of the year and the anxiety that can be induced by the simplest of social situations or daily tasks: What time do I arrive for dinner? What does one bring to a picnic? She told me how meaningful it was when, out of the blue, someone said to her, “You know, I never noticed this before, but it’s hard work fitting in.”
These words resonated with me, though it felt ridiculous to admit it. After all, how hard was it for me—a white English-speaking Canadian—to fit into American society and culture? Although I blended in, the fact of the matter was that Virginia simply wasn’t home. It wasn’t just that I missed things I couldn’t find there, like Kraft peanut butter or the briskness that settles into the air on a late-August evening. Really, I missed what was familiar because it felt safe. Sitting there, in the counsellor’s sunsoaked office, I realized just how homesick I was and how homesick I’d been in the past.
Although the experience is, to one degree or another, universal, homesickness is often trivialized as a predictable emotion for kids at sleepovers and summer camps. But the increasingly globalized, itinerant world we live in points to a question about why that is. Homesickness is arguably more widespread and acute than ever. We’re living in an age of unprecedented mobility, when millions leave their homes every year, some perhaps pursuing relationships or careers, many forced out by war or natural disasters. At a time when the very planet we live on is transforming into an unfamiliar place, our sense of home—and what it means to miss it—may be challenged at its core. For all the intimacy we humans have had with homesickness throughout history, the one thing it seems we haven’t done is understand where it fits into our lives today and, perhaps more radically, accept it.
Mark Leary, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, has described homesickness as emotional stress caused by separation from family, friends, and “familiar, supportive environments.” In a 1996 review of the psychological scientific literature on homesickness, a group of researchers cited a study estimating that some 50 to 75 percent of the general population had dealt with the affliction. According to the review, homesickness manifests in both mild and “intense” forms. It can lead to depression, difficulty concentrating, apathy, detachment, or grieving, among other symptoms. People suffering from the condition have also reported physical ailments, ranging from gastric and intestinal issues to headaches and fatigue. To Miranda van Tilburg, an associate professor of clinical research at Campbell University, the symptoms aren’t surprising. “We know the brain and body are intimately connected,” she says. “When we’re stressed, anxious, depressed, we get headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, etc. Homesickness is no different.”
Van Tilburg began studying homesickness in the 1990s. She found that there was a gap in the research about the condition not because people weren’t suffering from it but because it was perceived as trivial. “I actually would have people laugh in my face,” she says. And, although she no longer specializes in the topic, van Tilburg says she remains the go-to expert for anyone interested in homesickness because there are so few people researching it. “It is still sort of seen as something that’s not worth studying,” she says.
It wasn’t always this way. Formal research into feelings of homesickness in the Western world dates back to the late seventeenth century, according to historian Susan Matt, the author of Homesickness: An American History and a professor at Weber State University. In his 1688 dissertation, Johannes Hofer, a Swiss scholar, chronicled one of the earliest known recorded cases of homesickness as a medical illness. The case concerned a Swiss student who had relocated from Bern to Basel and fallen ill. The patient described his condition as a burning fever, though he didn’t run a temperature. He told his host family he felt sad, and they, in turn, sought the advice of a doctor, who suggested they try flushing out the patient’s bodily fluids—a procedure much like an enema. When that didn’t work, the family rushed to construct a makeshift bed to transport the student home. As soon as the journey got underway, the student began to perk up. According to Hofer, the student had been “nearly half dead.” But, now, he “began to draw breath more freely, to respond to inquiries more easily, and to show a better tranquility of mind.” As the convoy approached his hometown, the student’s symptoms abated. Soon, “he was restored to his whole sane self.”
Hofer concluded the student’s ailment was “none other than Nostalgia, which admits no remedy other than a return to the homeland.” Hofer based his theory on a range of anecdotes rather than a formal survey. Although it lacks the rigour of modern science, his dissertation marks one of the first medical forays into the study of homesickness, an illness Hofer believed could afflict people across continental Europe.
According to Matt, Hofer’s findings inspired other doctors and scholars to take up the topic in the early eighteenth century. By the 1750s, the word homesickness started to appear in the English language. Some thirty years later, British doctors were diagnosing Welsh soldiers with nostalgia.
Matt writes that Hofer’s concept of nostalgia—a term he coined based on nostos, the Greek word for “homecoming”—was used interchangeably with homesickness until roughly the early twentieth century, when nostalgia began evolving into its contemporary definition: a longing for a bygone era rather than for a specific place. From the late 1600s through the 1800s, European and American doctors considered homesickness, by both its names, a diagnosable illness. Doctors recommended various methods to cure it, from isolating patients in towers—assuming that people who used to live in mountainous regions simply missed the elevation—to avoiding idleness and banning the singing of popular songs like “Home, Sweet Home!”
Today, homesickness doesn’t carry the status it once did as a treatable affliction. As van Tilburg, whose research now focuses on gastrointestinal disorders, points out, there’s a stigma associated with homesickness; most adults don’t want to admit they feel it.
How did we go from acknowledging and treating homesickness to ridiculing it at worst and overlooking it at best? According to Matt, the shift began in the late 1700s, with the rise of Enlightenment era ideas about the pursuit of individual happiness and the supposed virtue of separating oneself from one’s community. As more people started migrating to colonies abroad, including in what would become the United States and Canada, some started to believe that leaving home in search of ambition and commerce was far more virtuous than staying put. Matt cites Thomas Arnold, an English physician who saw homesickness as “an unreasonable fondness for the place of our birth.”
By the mid-nineteenth century, Matt writes, some Americans and Europeans were convinced that technological advancements and infrastructure such as the telegraph, the postal service, and steamships would vanquish homesickness once and for all. In 1846, for instance, a French physician reported that such innovations were making cases of homesickness increasingly rare. By 1899, American observers came to a similar conclusion. “Nostalgia has grown less common in these days of quick communication, of rapid transmission of news and of a widened knowledge of geography,” one American newspaper noted. Homesickness, they suggested, had been eradicated, “except in the case of the very young or the densely ignorant.”
In some realms, including the military, homesickness retained its gravity for a while longer. During the American Civil War, Matt writes, doctors claimed that homesickness had killed some seventy-four men. She also cites Thomas Dodman, the author of What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion and an assistant professor at Columbia University, who notes that the French army recorded fatal cases of nostalgia until 1884. Matt found that, during the First World War, the Canadian military banned musicians from playing the bagpipes, fearing it would tarnish the morale of Scottish Canadian troops and perhaps even impact their overall well-being.
Matt writes that, for many others, the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries meant increasing levels of shame attached to homesickness among adults and, sometimes, even among children. By then, social Darwinists, who believed adaptability was a facet of human evolution, had successfully infantilized homesickness. In writings and commentaries on the subject, they attributed the condition to groups they deemed emotionally and intellectually stunted, such as Black Americans and Indigenous peoples—groups that have historically had higher incidences of being forced from their homes—as well as women. By the twentieth century, whatever sympathy there had been for homesickness was largely abandoned, thanks in large part to the technological advancements many people believed had made the condition obsolete. In addition to railroads and steamships, there were now telephones, automobiles, and passenger jets, all of which made leaving home seem easier.
According to Matt, the period after the Second World War also brought about a new perception that people should be willing to transfer their loyalty from their family and community to their country and employer. This was fuelled in part by the social and cultural conformity of the era and the proliferation of the “organization man” ideal. This was the belief that, as one writer described it in 1956, men not only work for their employer but “belong to it as well.” “Families cannot be too closely attached to their kindred,” sociologist W. Lloyd Warner wrote in 1962, “or they will be held to one location, socially and economically maladapted.” This idea, Matt writes, underpinned the widespread relocation of workers by their employer. It also contributed to the appeal of suburbs, places nuclear families flocked to that were far from their extended families but could be fashioned as ideal homes.
Psychologists furthered the idea that living close to one’s extended family made one socially maladapted. They also equated homesickness with childishness and instructed parents to prevent kids, especially boys, from showing emotion. In her book, Matt quotes one mother writing to her son, in the 1940s, while he was away at camp. “Don’t let anybody know you are homesick,” she advised. “Men never show their feelings like this and you would be a ‘SISSY’ if you come home.”
When my counsellor in Virginia told me she’d struggled with homesickness,it was the first time I was able to acknowledge that leaving home is exhilarating and energizing but also hard. It pushes you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to abandon people and places that make you feel safe. I’d tried to brush those feelings off, and I was beginning to understand why. They’re unpleasant, certainly. But they’re also something we still tend to be ashamed of.
Homesickness research remains a relatively small field, one that’s often engulfed by related mental health struggles, including depression and anxiety. But what’s changed in recent decades is a growing willingness to talk openly about mental health and vulnerability.
When I spoke with van Tilburg, I told her how her research resonated with me. She’d found, for instance, that people are more prone to homesickness if they engage in passive mental activities—such as, in my case, researching and writing a dissertation—rather than active physical ones. “No wonder you were homesick!” she said. Hearing van Tilburg and my counsellor validate my experiences helped me realize that my earlier attempts to feel better—like the well-intentioned Venn diagram sheet—had probably made things worse. Those efforts addressed feelings related to homesickness, like stress and anxiety, but ignored the root of the problem. I had been considering only the symptoms, without looking at the cause.
Researchers have found that homesickness generates anxiety often because being disconnected from a sense of home leads to a loss of control over everything from routine to environment. This discomfort is natural, according to Mark Leary. He believes homesickness evolved to discourage us from venturing alone into the unfamiliar, particularly in an era when we didn’t know what else was out there. It serves a similar purpose today, warning us not to abandon supportive groups or environments and encouraging us to find our way back to them if we leave or get separated. When we push back against that, we’re resisting our natural instincts.
I thought back to the nineteenth-century reverence for technology’s power to resolve such ills as homesickness. Could we really fool our evolutionary instincts with everything from telegrams to text messages? During my time away from home, I’ve relied on technology—tools like Skype and Instagram—to keep in touch with home. In California, I ignored local news, preferring to stream CBC Radio out of Vancouver in between weekly Skype sessions with my best friend. I asked van Tilburg how she thinks our hyperconnectivity has changed our relationship to homesickness. When she started researching homesickness, the internet wasn’t a household staple and smartphones were rare. Still, van Tilburg told me about a small study she started a few years ago (but never got to finish), in collaboration with high school students, which focused on cellphone use at summer camps. The students found that homesickness rates were significantly higher at camps that allowed cellphones versus at ones that banned them.
John-Tyler Binfet, who studies stress reduction, including how to manage homesickness, at the University of British Columbia (UBC), thinks that, as with so many aspects of our digitized lives, the problem doesn’t necessarily lie with technology per se but with how we use it. “You can celebrate a past event, or you can celebrate a new connection,” he says. Binfet advises the students he works with at UBC to use social media or text messaging to share photos and stories from new experiences they’re having rather than to revisit old ones. Likewise, van Tilburg, Leary, and Chris Thurber, an expert in homesickness among children, believe technology can, when used correctly, help people get accustomed to new environments. Google Maps, for instance, can prepare us with a dose of the unfamiliar before we dive into it. But even that can only help so much. Binfet, who is from California, admitted to me that he had struggled with homesickness after moving to BC. He told me he’d sometimes sit in his car and imagine what it would be like to drive south, for hours and hours, until he was home. I knew exactly how he felt.
Embracing the unfamiliar is far easier said than done for the millions driven from their homes every year by warfare, political and economic instability, famine, and increasingly, climate change. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are nearly 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world—an unprecedented figure that, among other things, brings new urgency to better understanding how to deal with homesickness and better acknowledging the various forms it can take.
Swati Chawla, a scholar of exile and migration in South Asia, questions whether the term “homesickness” can sufficiently capture refugees’ experiences, let alone help researchers devise remedies. “I think of homesickness as an experience that is predicated upon a home being there,” she wrote to me in an email. “To me, homesickness arises out of a voluntary move to another place and implies agency and privilege.” Admitting you miss your home country while living in a new one can garner unfair allegations of ingratitude—if not dangerous slurs to “go back where you came from.”
The impossibility of return can be figurative as well as literal, a fact explored by Svetlana Boym, who was a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Harvard University and is the author of The Future of Nostalgia. “Nostalgia,” she writes, “is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” It’s rare to go home and find it exactly how you left it: when I’m back in Oakville, for example, I often find the open fields transformed into construction sites and condo buildings. Though the change feels inevitable, I can’t help but miss the trees. Over time, Boym writes, our understanding of home becomes a figment of our imagination, a memory we’ve invested in emotionally. The clash of home as we thought it would be and home as it is can cause psychological anguish.
In some cases, these feelings can manifest in what Glenn Albrecht, an Australian environmental philosopher and the author of Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, calls “solastalgia.” In the early 2000s, Albrecht coined the term and defined it as “the homesickness you have when you are still at home,” a “painful emotion in the face of negatively experienced environmental change.” Albrecht’s study initially focused on communities in New South Wales affected by large-scale mining, but others have applied his concept to countries all over the world, from Canada to Indonesia.
Ashlee Cunsolo, now dean of the School of Arctic and Sub-Arctic Studies of the Labrador Institute at Memorial University, says feelings of solastalgia are particularly acute among people who live in close connection to the land. In 2009, she started participating in Inuit-led studies on climate change and mental health. This research is showing that long-term changes to the landscape, such as loss of sea ice or disrupted migration patterns of wildlife, are disorienting in many ways. “A lot of people were talking about this sense of, almost a loss and a homesickness,” she says. “That home that they loved, even though they were still living in it, wasn’t the same.”
The American Psychological Association has already recognized solastalgia in a 2017 guide on climate change and mental health co-authored with Eco-America, an environmental nonprofit. A representative for Health Canada said its upcoming 2021 report on climate change will include a chapter on mental health and a definition of solastalgia as it relates to Canada. This recognition might lead to more funding for those researching solastalgia and for policies that address it. As with most mental health concerns, researchers say it’s crucial to create spaces where homesickness can be acknowledged and those who experience it don’t feel judged. Simply put, doing so helps people who feel desperately alone feel a little less lonely.
WI asked Cunsolo if it’s only a matter of time until climate change makes everyone feel homesick, or at least solastalgic, she stressed that, although the feeling is acute among groups that have a close connection to the land, it’s also increasingly widespread. Try as we might to transform ourselves into cosmopolitan citizens of the world, it turns out that where we come from—what we identify as home, whether it’s a place or specific people in our lives—still matters. Then she echoed something van Tilburg told me: solastalgia is about grief and mourning and sadness and anguish, but “if people are grieving, it’s coming from a place of love, and that’s coming from a commitment to the natural world and the environment around us.”
There’s some solace in this, even if it’s the sort of solace you get when you FaceTime with a friend: the experience may temper the pain, but it doesn’t make the homesickness go away. As a Polish migrant to the United States told a homesickness researcher in the 1980s, “You have to divorce yourself from the past.” Getting over homesickness means cultivating a steadfast commitment to hope. It reorients you toward a future state where the pain of leaving home and severing ties with a place you love will have been worth it. Does that state ever exist? Maybe for some, but for me, someone privileged enough to have a home I’m safe in, believing that some other place will be better feels like a tremendous leap of faith. In our strange new world of pandemics, polarized polities, and surveillance technology—things that are reshaping the very fabric of our everyday lives—even our present is unknowable. All of which makes gambling on the future an even more courageous act.