Most of us have a particular location, maybe two, that holds huge personal significance—somewhere imbued with fond memories or a strong sense of nostalgia. According to a recent study, just looking at a photo of your happy place brings you more joy than even your most precious possessions.
To better understand the depth of our connection with place, researchers from the UK’s National Trust monitored the brain activity of 20 participants as they viewed a slideshow of their favorite things. The results showed heightened activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain associated with emotion—when they viewed photographs of beloved places as opposed to sentimental objects, like their wedding rings.
“Therefore, we can conclude that significant places more likely contain greater emotional importance than objects, as areas in our brain involved in emotional processing respond more strongly to significant places,” the report says.
While the reasons for getting such contentment from a place are incredibly personal and varied, they tend to fall into three specific categories: places the individual visited in their early years (nostalgic locations), places they associate with a significant other (a spot with shared meaning for them and their loved ones), and places related to the here and now (recent discoveries they frequent on a regular basis).
For many of the participants their special location is linked to their sense of identity; a huge 86 percent agreed that “this place feels like a part of me,” 76 percent said “visiting this place says a lot about who I am,” and 58 percent felt that “I wouldn’t be who I am today without this place.”
Rebecca Cook, a British teacher at an international school in Bangkok, fell in love with a beautiful and relatively undeveloped Thai island near Phuket. “Each year my husband and I attend a yoga retreat there, dedicating precious time to our health and wellbeing” she explains. “I have shed many tears there, releasing the old and making space for the new. Each time we leave, we feel more bonded than before—it’s all the special little things I share with my husband there that puts this place deep in my heart.”
Sometimes places are the backdrop to meaningful moments, other times they seem to somehow orchestrate the moments themselves—either way, they add color and context to the stories we tell about our lives. When we revisit them—even in a photograph—we get to relive that joy and contentment all over again. No wonder psychologists recommend spending money on travel instead of material things to boost satisfaction on a long-term basis.