Always on the Move: How Residential Mobility Impacts Our Well-Being

John had just received a job offer from a company located in a big city. He was very excited about it and couldn’t wait to move there. He had been hearing a lot of vivid descriptions about the interesting life experiences he could have in the new city from his future colleagues, who have lived there for a couple of years. They told John that people in this big city are friendly, especially to the newcomers. Even more exciting, their social circles were so broad that John would likely meet various kinds of people such as entrepreneurs, pilots, sommeliers, and artists, just to name a few. Additionally, John did not have to worry about whether he could adjust to living in a new environment, because big cities offer a vast array of stores where he could get almost everything he needs. However, John’s wife, Sally, was not so positive about moving to a big city. She liked the small town where they currently lived, for the residents are very active in community affairs. She had heard that people from big cities are hypocritical and indifferent to helping others, and worried about whether or not they would be able to fit in and make friends there. Also, from a recent news report, she learned that people living in big cities are prone to chronic stress and poor mental health.

Does the above scenario sound familiar? Perhaps you have heard similar stories before. You might have even faced such a dilemma yourself, deciding where to move and evaluating the possible benefits and risks that come with moving. The United States is a highly mobile society. Between 2005 and 2010, approximately 35.4% of Americans changed residence in search of better housing, employment, and economic conditions (Ihrke & Faber, 2012). But is frequent moving good or bad for our well-being?

Residential mobility is a noteworthy topic that has been well studied by sociologists and other social scientists for decades. For example, higher residential mobility has been associated with higher crime rates in neighborhoods (see Sampson, 2012, for review). More recently, psychologists have begun to examine the psychological experience of moving and its likely impact on the well-being of individuals. They have been asking questions such as: How do people feel right after they move to a new place? Do frequent moves make life more interesting or more stressful? What are the long-term consequences of moving repeatedly? These questions are potentially important, because the answers can help us better understand the effects of moving and find ways to cope with potential challenges we might face when deciding to move to a new place. 

How Do People Typically Feel and React After Moving?

Have you moved recently or plan to live somewhere different in the near future? For many people, moving to a brand new environment may be one way to spice up their lives. It is natural to feel excited about moving (Oishi, Miao, Koo, Kisling, & Ratliff, 2012). However, moving to a new place can also be highly stressful. In addition to the logistics of moving, you may feel anxious and possibly lonely. This is precisely what Shigehiro Oishi and his research team found. People who participated in their research generated more words related to anxiety and loneliness when asked to imagine having a highly mobile lifestyle (Oishi et al., 2012; 2013).

What is more interesting is the far-reaching effects of such anxiety and loneliness. For example, people on the move tend to show the familiarity-liking effect – that is, a preference for familiar over unfamiliar objects – because of the anxious feelings they have about moving (Oishi et al., 2012). This common psychological reaction may provide one explanation for the success of strip malls and national chain stores in places where a high percentage of the population frequently moves (Oishi et al., 2012). Although big-box retail chains like Target and Home Depot provide housing-related products that movers need to settle into their new home, these stores are not specially catered to newcomers. Researchers believe that a more plausible explanation for why big chains thrive in highly mobile towns and cities lies in the psychological experience of moving: Starting life in a new place can bring forth anxiety, which in turn motivates people to seek what is familiar. To most Americans on the move, national chain stores are likely to be more familiar than the small mom and pop stores in their new neighborhood. So the next time you are planning a big move, know that feeling anxious is perfectly normal and do not be surprised to find yourself visiting chain stores more frequently than you have done prior to the move.

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