Ever get home from holiday to think ‘My house is really rather nice’?
After a holiday you can, for a time, enjoy your home as if it were brand new to you
Studies prove that we’re hardwired to prefer what we know. Image: Getty
The time of year has put holidays in my mind. We’ve all had the experience of arriving at our destination and your heart lifting at exactly how lovely the hotel, apartment, campsite, grand chateau or luxury yacht (depending on your budget and proclivities) has turned out to be. We’ve also had the opposite, that sinking feeling of walking an endless corridor with rows of numbered doors that puts you more in mind of prison than escapism. Perhaps there’s a hideous industrial estate, cropped out of the brochure shots; or possibly it’s something impossible to capture in a photograph, such as the smell of drains.
But what about coming home? Have you ever returned from your away-from-it-all break and found yourself thinking: my house is really rather nice? It’s counterintuitive. After all, if you’ve got lucky in the holiday lottery, you’re coming back from gorgeous views, outdoor dining, clutter-free rooms and dinners you don’t have to wash up after. Why should we then return to our own imperfect worlds and frequently find them nicer than we’d remembered?
The answer lies in the familiar. Studies prove that we’re hardwired to prefer what we know. This is most likely a survival technique from when the world was (arguably) a scarier place: we cleave to what we’re accustomed to. This is true from something as mundane as what you like for breakfast to your taste in fine art. An experiment in the 1990s by psychology professor James Cutting showed people famous works by artists such as impressionist painter Claude Monet, alongside lesser-known works by the same artist. Initially people preferred the paintings they knew well, but repeated exposure led to preferences for the other works. In other words, paintings grew more likeable the more familiar they became.
Brand new home
The trouble with your own home is that its very familiarity leads it to become almost invisible. German philosopher Martin Heidegger had something to say about this. In his frequently impenetrable but otherwise fascinating quest to understand the concept of being, he looked at how in day-to-day life we necessarily forget to look at everyday objects such as tables, doorways, knives, forks and plates. If we didn’t, we’d become so distracted we’d forget to get on with the dinner.
Travelling takes us out of the everyday. It also has a separate, but connected gift to offer: it makes the familiar briefly strange again when we return home. So, after your holiday, whether in Benidorm or Bali, you can, for a short while, experience your home, and all the things you’ve chosen for it over time, as if it were brand new.
To help with this, there are, of course, a few things you should do before leaving. Throw any cut flowers away, or give them away if they’re still too fresh to bear binning. Invest in some of those clever drip-feeders for your house plants, such as the fetching glass Water From a Stone kits (£14.99 from Amazon). For a cheaper option, you can buy self-watering cones that you just screw an old plastic water bottle into for €3 from Designist (designist.ie). Change the beds before you go, and the towels, too, so that when you get back, you can repeat that lovely hotel crisp clean sheets feeling, always guaranteed to make you feel good. Empty the fridge. Nothing wrecks a post-holiday buzz like lumpy milk and furry cheese.
Very short haul
What if you’re having a staycation? Or what if you’re wise, or lucky enough to be able to take your holidays at a less busy time? Alain de Botton explores all aspects of holidays in his pocket philosophy book The Art of Travel, including a fun section in which he proves that it is possible to argue and be miserable in Barbados. His experience of return is gloomy. It’s possible that, being a philosopher, he never lets his surroundings become forgettably familiar, but just in case they do, he recommends taking a leaf out of 17th-century French writer Xavier de Maistre’s book. De Maistre was an adventurer who built a balloon that flew for eight minutes above Versailles, carrying a sheep, a duck and a rooster. He also built himself a pair of giant paper wings, on which he planned to fly to America.
In 1790, however, he pioneered a new kind of adventure: room travel. Introducing his book, Journey Around My Bedroom, he explained that now “the most indolent beings won’t have any reason to hesitate before setting off to find pleasures that will cost them neither money nor effort”. De Maistre first travels to his sofa, and with fresh eyes takes in its forgotten qualities, and remembers with affection the times he has spent in its lap. For de Botton, the book goes downhill from there, as the 27-year-old writer gets mired in digressions about his dog and his girlfriend. Nevertheless, it was successful enough that a sequel, Nocturnal Expedition Around My Bedroom, followed. And no, despite the ambiguous title, there was nothing louche about it.
So, whether you’re crossing time zones, or just the living room floor, the trick is to maintain your sense of wonder. Shake up the familiar once again, to see even your tiredest, oldest things anew.