Travellers rarely talk about homesickness. You can scroll through thousands of travel blogs featuring beautiful pictures of blue skies, white sands and tropical breakfasts and I doubt there will be any mention of them missing grey rainy days at home. Maybe they don’t? Or maybe it would make their jet-setting lifestyle slightly less desirable? It’s probably difficult to find a company that wants to sponsor a post on homesickness. This isn’t a travel blog so I can openly say that I’ve experienced homesickness throughout my trip.
Risk factors for homesickness
I’ve been travelling with a group of 8 others and it’s interesting to me that, despite all of us having travelled a long distance to be in Asia, either from the US, Canada or the UK, the amount of homesickness each individual has experienced has varied considerably. This is something I’ve noticed in other people that I’ve met travelling too, some have been away from home for years and have no desire to return – it seems the world is divided between those who can’t keep still and those of us who want nothing more than to be in our own beds.
As a DIY psychologist I have my own theories to explain these individual differences but I was keen to find out what the scientific literature had to say about homesickness.
Below is a list of some of the risk factors for homesickness identified in research papers; I’ve added a sub-note on my experience based on my small sample of test subjects a.k.a my travelling companions:
- Introversion and neuroticism (with extraversion and emotional stability being protective against homesickness)
Us introverts seem to always get a rough time of it in psychological research but I think there is something in this one. I would describe most of the group I’m with as extroverts – a trip that involves travelling with strangers for 3 months is more likely to appeal to extraverts and so this explains the low level of homesickness that most of the group have experienced
- Low levels of self-directedness
Self-directedness is our ability to adapt to the demands of a situation in order to achieve our personal goals. Obviously I’m incredibly biased here, but I think I have high levels of self-directedness yet still suffered from homesickness so n=1 doesn’t support this research finding.
- Previous separation experience and little separation experience
A wonderfully contradictory finding – however it tends to be the case that homesickness is highest if the previous separation experience has been traumatic such as foster care. I can certainly see how little experience of separation may increase homesickness as you need to learn coping mechanisms, some of the group’s more seasoned travellers have honed this skill set very well.
- Strong family cohesion
This is one of the theories I strongly believe in. Those of us who miss home the most complain of missing our families, we get on well with our siblings and our parents. If home isn’t where the heart is, then there’s not as much to miss.
- Students with authoritative or permissive parents
Parenting can be categorised into 4 types (I’ve put a diagram below describing these). Studies of students leaving home for university or college have found that those with authoritative or permissive parents are more likely to suffer homesickness, whereas children of authoritarian or uninvolved parents were less likely to experience homesickness. I’d probably describe my parents as authoritative.
- High self-disclosers are less likely to suffer homesickness than low disclosers
Again something I’ve really noticed in my small ‘research group’, those who want to share everything about themselves at feeling-circle time have suffered less homesickness. I wouldn’t describe myself as a big sharer, especially around strangers.
Technology is often praised for connecting people in far-flung places; you can now live in Sydney and celebrate your birthday with your grandma in Ireland via video call. However a study that looked at international students adjusting to study abroad in Thailand, found that mobile phone usage increased feelings of homesickness.
The reason for this finding is that the students were likely to be using their phones to connect with family and friends back home and whilst this can act as a temporary comfort, it tends to increase feelings of homesickness. Also the time invested in maintaining these relationships back home may mean they were less able to establish new relationships in their new location.
I identify with this strongly. It’s part of the deal for my travel program that I always have access to Internet which means I can always be connected to home. Thanks to Apple’s new weekly screen time summary, I am well aware of how much time I spend on my phone and a huge percentage of this is spent on social media speaking to people from home. Reading the study detailed above, showed me that I experience some of the key features of a phone addiction whilst I’ve been out here – my phone is rarely not by my side, I even drunkenly ‘lost’ my phone on a night out and after raising alarm amongst the group, I found it in my pocket!
Cures for homesickness
If we are away from home and struggling with homesickness, what can we do to make ourselves feel better? The general piece of advice seems to be distraction and not contact.
When we’re feeling low and missing home its advised to think about the positives of our new environment such as ‘what’s fun here?’ And to think practically about how we can beat loneliness and boredom. One of the best ways to distract from homesickness is said to be physical exercise – when you’re as lazy as me its frustrating to find that exercise is a bit of a cure-all but I can vouch for this being effective in reducing homesickness.
Seeking social support from people in your new location seems like an obvious cure to homesickness but the effect is surprisingly weak. It appears to be that seeking social support works by acting as a distraction rather than compensating for those left behind.
Finally, resilience, the ability to get on with things when times get tough has some influence on reducing homesickness. Resilience is a bit of a buzzword in psychology at the moment and there’s a lot of interest in finding ways to increase children’s resilience as it has so many protective factors for mental health in later life.
How do you feel about leaving home? Are you an explorer or are you happiest at home?