It has been called the Geographic Cure. It could also be the Goldilocks Complex. Or perhaps the Sunset Syndrome is at play. Of course, it might just be a form of adult play. (That explanation always makes me feel better.) Really, it's about pursuing some idea of happiness, I think, and not necessarily because you're unhappy where you are. Then again, if you moved frequently as a child, Freud would likely diagnose it as "repetition compulsion."
What, you think your habit of fantasizing about life in a different house doesn't mean anything? And what if you act on it and move, not because you have to – this is a compulsion of First World 21st-century people with options, after all – but because you want to? When you pore over the real-estate section of the newspaper to look at what's on the market, it's not always to drop your jaw over the exorbitant house prices now, is it?
I didn't think so. I'm the first to admit I'm a real-estate voyeur. I have gone to open houses recreationally, just for the pleasure of imagining how life might (or might not) be enhanced in a particular house. It's like trying on a series of dresses in a clothing store to see which will make you feel the best – and bonus! you don't have to buy a thing.
When I'm in a different city, even a different country, I will suddenly think, "We could live here." I have imagined life in a small Irish town. In Lunenberg, N.S., I have fantasized about life in an old house overlooking the harbour. We even spontaneously looked at some properties with a real-estate agent. In Montreal, recently, we did the same thing.
Sure, real estate has long been the greatest class signifier. No one goes to the wrong side of the tracks to fantasize about living there. Your house is the point from which you can measure progress.
Now, it's not so much about where you live (although that still counts) but about how you live. A minimalist loft space in a cool part of town can suggest a more progressive, eclectic (and interesting) personality than that of someone who remains (boringly) in the bourgeois, traditional setting of an established neighbourhood. Wealth may provide limitless choices of where to live, but it's the choice that matters. Social class is all conferred in the domestic aesthetic. Our houses have become our skins. And the desire to change them is a longing for a part of ourselves we haven't yet expressed.
"A house is the soul's chief representative on Earth," says Meghan Daum, columnist with the Los Angeles Times and author of the memoir Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. "It becomes a vessel for our anxieties and tastes; a way of showing others who we are."
Binnie Klein, a psychotherapist and radio host based in New Haven, Conn., has recently started a new program called HomeWork to examine how psychological interiors are mirrored in dry-walled ones, an obsession abetted by the plethora of HGTV programming, she says. The radio program is about "people's complex relationship with their living spaces, their desires, fantasies, memories and their attachment to objects," she explains on the phone.
Shrinks even have a term – the "geographic cure" – for the impulse some people have to move when life is difficult. "It's the notion that the move itself will take care of some issue," she explains. "But that's an unrealistic expectation." No matter where you go, you always take yourself.
Ms. Daum understands the impulse well. She had a peripatetic childhood, in which her mother, "a house freak," always felt that "if you change the venue, you change the [family]dynamic." The numerous places where Ms. Daum has lived as an independent adult, an odyssey she chronicled in her memoir, were "re-set buttons," she says. "When you move, there's an opportunity to remake yourself."
Sometimes her house decisions were unhealthy, she admits. "There was a period of time when I moved constantly, in a very self-destructive way." Now married and living in a new house with her husband, she tries "to keep the impulse in check. I know that when I get depressed or anxious, my go-to thing is I want to move."
But if relocation can be an ill-judged form of psychological escape, it can also be an expression of optimism. The desire to move can be about inhabiting a clearer, more evolved, sense of who we are. And the wherewithal to change houses – something many people avoid because it can be anxiety-producing – is praised as confident, adventurous; evidence of someone who isn't stuck in a rut (or in a two-bedroom walk-up). Like Goldilocks, you're wanting to find the place that feels "just right," for right now.
"It's my constant search for more flow, a place where I can be calmer and more productive," says a friend, who has lived in six different houses in central Toronto in the past 14 years. (Four of the houses she bought and later sold; two were rentals while one of the houses was being renovated.) "A house is an investment but it's also a work place and a family place." Moving is a creative endeavour, she says. "I like claiming a house or a property and settling into it, making it work well and be welcoming." In a very happy period in her life, she still devours the real-estate section of the newspaper. "I fantasize about houses in different places, like what it would be like to live near the water or up north. I just like houses, I think. It's a quest, but it's okay if I don't get there."
And for all the boomers who want to push back the years, consider this. If a house is a vessel for your life, what might the urge to shed the old skin be about? I remember my grandmother moving into a new, large house in Ottawa when she was a 75-year-old widow. Many thought her desire to relocate was odd. If it's not a financially driven decision, why bother? Yet she had always wanted to live in a pink house, which this one was. And she liked the garden there better.
Now, with longer life expectancy, people have more of a sense that there's still time to live differently in ways they didn't at earlier points in their lives, either because they couldn't or just didn't bother. "This longing for an alternate place to live is a railing out against the fading of the light," Ms. Klein says. "I think of it as the Sunset Syndrome."
So, there you go. The real-estate boom may not be about greed and a preoccupation with material possession and surface. (Well, not entirely.) Put yourself on that designer couch, and unearth your real-estate motivations for a happiness – a version of your life – that so far has eluded you.