The Science of Homesickness

Writer: 
July 18, 2014
Mary Leary

At some point or another, most of us have been afflicted by homesickness—that pang of nostalgia and longing for familiar people and places. To understand the origin and purpose of homesickness, we asked Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience and the director of Duke’s social psychology program, to give us some insight into this common human experience.

How would you define homesickness?

Homesickness is a state of emotional distress that people sometimes experience when they are separated from supportive friends or family members in an unfamiliar environment. There’s some debate about whether “homesickness” is a unique emotion or a combination of reactions. In many ways, it’s mostly loneliness combined with a sense of feeling out of place and wanting to return to familiar, supportive environments.

How did early human society set the stage for homesickness to evolve?

Unlike virtually every other animal, human beings do not have the natural defenses that would allow us to survive in the wild—no fangs or sharp teeth. And we can’t fly or run really fast. The only way that human beings and our hominid ancestors survived was by living in cohesive social groups in which members cooperated with one another for food, defense, child care, and so on. As a result, evolutionary pressures led us to be highly sociable, to want to belong to groups, and to behave in ways that maintain our connections with certain other people. To be indifferent to one’s relationships would have led people to wander off on their own or to be ostracized for bad behavior, resulting in becoming some predator’s dinner.

Homesickness probably evolved to discourage people from leaving supportive groups when our prehistoric ancestors lived in small nomadic bands and rarely moved from one band to another. Under those circumstances, homesickness would have been relatively uncommon, occurring only when individuals were separated from supportive, familiar people.

What’s the purpose of homesickness in the world today?

Its purpose is the same today as it has been for millions of years—to deter us from leaving supportive groups and environments. But unlike our ancestors, today, we interact with hundreds of people (most of whom we don’t know well), belong to a variety of groups, and often leave our families and familiar locations to move far away. Homesickness is essentially telling us not to do that and, if we find ourselves separated from familiar people and locations, to find our way back to the safety of the clan. Of course, that’s not how modern society works. We know we have to stay at college or in the new city where we just moved, but our brain is reacting to threats to our well-being from being separated from supportive people and environments. Suffering from homesickness is distressing and unpleasant, and people don’t like to experience it. But that’s its value—much like physical pain. We don’t like pain, but its aversiveness is essential in keeping us from hurting ourselves.

Is there a “cure” for homesickness?

The only way to get over homesickness is to reintegrate in the new environment. Joining groups, meeting people, and developing friendships will eventually create a new supportive environment. There are no data on this, but I also suspect that working to really familiarize oneself with the new location also will help a little—figuring out the layout of the city, visiting stores and parks, and developing a sense of efficacy in the new place.