The science of why there’s no place like home

By: Becky Dong

Snowflakes falling, cookies baking, and Mariah Carey blasting at full volume. What’s not to love about the holidays?  Whether you’re a Christmas enthusiast that hangs up the Christmas lights the second Halloween ends or a bit of a grinch, we can all agree that there’s something a little magical about the holidays. The festive season takes up what feels like the entirety of winter, with Christmas lights coming out at the first snowfall, but the full glory of holiday spirit isn’t experienced until the last exam or paper is written. 

It’s a sight to behold, students rushing out of the exam centre, yearning for the joyful cheer of winter break. Flurrying about, lugging suitcases down the slush-filled streets on their journey back to their families till the new winter semester. If you’re like me, you’d associate being home with comfy couches, fluffy blankets, and home-cooked meals. All these things sound amazing, but why do we specifically yearn for home, and why does it seem like there truly is no place like home? Well, here’s the science behind it.

Back to the nest, a safe haven that’s always there

There’s something extremely comforting about having a group of people who will be there for you no matter what, and for most of us, those people are our family. They love you regardless of how messy or annoying you are, and fights are always resolved, whether by apology or pretending it never happened. They’re there for you no matter what. A 2016 study in the Journal of Family Psychology analyzed the cortisol response of college freshmen, with the majority of participants experiencing a decrease in cortisol, a hormone associated with stress in response to family interactions, with the researchers characterizing the family environment as a “secure base.” After having to face a new and foreign environment alone, returning to a familiar place filled with loved ones has an even greater psychological impact on new students. The study noted how family activities and interactions are often experienced as a small getaway from stress. Some vacations involve beaches and sunshine, and some involve your parents taking care of you, cooking your favourite dishes, doing your laundry, and forcing your siblings to be nice.

Social networks

It’s often more than just your family. The excitement of going home may also coincide with catching up with old friends or sharing the joy you have at home with buddies over Facetime. The comfort of being with family falls within the scope of social connectivity. Although being with family is great, it’s not always feasible to visit them. That’s why it’s important to acknowledge the impact your friends have on your mental health. It’s great having friends with whom you can go out and create memories with, but it’s also comforting having a group of people that understand, and are going through the same stress of tests and assignments with you and knowing that you’re not alone. 

With this, it’s important to recognize the significance of a strong social network to support healthy lifestyles and prevent depressive symptoms. Although school can get hectic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should throw your friends to the side and only focus on studying. Getting out of the library for a meal or a movie with friends won’t detract from studying; it may even improve your productivity by alleviating some stress and anxiety. A 2022 study in Frontiers in Public Health observing the mental health of university students in Columbia found that individuals with high levels of social capital had lower rates of depression and anxiety, even having healthier lifestyles than their low social capital counterparts. 88% of the higher-risk depressive symptoms in the study came from students with low behavioural social capital largely due to the reality of individuals with high social capital receiving more social support from social networks. Striving for a balanced and healthy lifestyle with a good amount of social interaction is the recipe for a mentally and often physically healthy life.

It’s astounding how social interaction can greatly affect one’s life by not only boosting mood but having protective effects on mental health as well. As too much stress can be detrimental, it’s important to indulge in the things that give you happiness and lower the amounts of stress-induced cortisol, whether that may be a serotonin-boosting hug from mom or dessert with some friends. So hug your family (it’s good for you) and let them feed you all of your favourite foods, send some New Years’ texts to your amazing friends, and continue bonding with your social network because there’s nothing more heartwarming than being surrounded by all the amazing people in your life.