American restlessness, American unhappiness?

Imagine you are a high school basketball player, and a pretty good one. You are a senior, and right now you are the starting point guard for the Rochester Eagles. Last year you started for the Lexington Cougars, in a different state, and the year before that you played the same position for yet another squad, the Flyers of Pottsville. Your family moves a lot because of your father’s work, but you’ve managed to win a spot on the local team wherever you land.

So how do you think of yourself at the moment? Do you identify yourself as a proud Rochester Eagle? Or do you think of yourself as simply a talented point guard?

Well, if you’re like most people, you think of yourself primarily as a journeyman point guard, not as a member of the Eagles—or of any local team for that matter. That’s because you’ve learned from experience that group membership doesn’t last; teams and communities are fleeting. What endures are your grit, and your leadership skill, and your fast hands. In short, you.

This example comes from the work of University of Virginia psychological scientist Shigehiro Oishi, who has for some years been studying the mental and emotional consequences of residential mobility. America is one of the most mobile societies in the world, which means that lots of people are living different versions of the itinerant hoopster’s experience. Surprisingly, psychologists have not paid much attention to this common American experience. But as Oishi’s studies are showing, mobility shapes everything from our sense of identity to our friendships—and even our happiness.

It all starts with basic sense of self. Oishi studied a large sample of American college students, some of whom had moved around a lot before college and others of whom had pretty much stayed put. When he asked these students to describe themselves—their most important attributes—the itinerants were much more likely to mention personal traits, while less mobile students were more apt to mention important group affiliations. In fact, the mobile students didn’t belong to many groups; they weren’t joiners. And this tendency weakened their overall sense of community identity.

Mobility appears to affect the nature of friendship as well, in a variety of ways. In one study, for example, college freshmen who had moved around a lot reported having more friends—as measured by their Facebook friendships—and they also added more new friends after arriving on campus. But it’s not just the size of the social networks, Oishi has found. Mobile Americans are more likely to form “duty free” relationships, without the deep sense of social obligation that characterizes traditional friendships. Duty-free friendships are based on more on shared interests and similarities of personality, rather than group membership.

So who’s happier, those who ramble or those who stay close to home? One would guess that more mobile people might be happier, since that’s why many people move—to find a new life, perhaps a better job or a safer community. But the results are more mixed than that. As Oishi describes in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, adults who move often for work feel they have more interesting lives and are more satisfied with their marriages and family life. But itinerant adults also report more frequent health issues, like stomach aches and shortness of breath, than do less mobile adults. It’s possible that when people pull up stakes for a better life, they overestimate the novelty and opportunity of moving, and underestimate the social disruption and its consequences.

The stomach aches and other ailments may be the tip of the iceberg. When Oishi analyzed a decade of data from 7000 adults, he found that those who moved frequently in childhood were more likely to have died during the course of the study. Perhaps unsurprisingly, introverts suffered more from the negative consequences of mobility, including increased mortality. In short, the American pattern of residential mobility may have a dark side that has yet to be fully revealed.

When the French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville traveled in U.S. in the 1830s, he was struck by Americans’ restlessness, even in the midst of their prosperity. He was also struck by the “cloud” that darkened many American faces. This sadness, he believed, was explained by the fact that Americans are constantly thinking about the good things they might be missing.

Tocqueville didn’t have the advantage of modern genetics to help him understand the paradoxical American character. Today we know that nations founded by immigrants—like the United States and Australia—have much higher rates of mobility than older nations, such as China and Germany. Population geneticists now believe that these national differences might be explained by the genetic distribution of personality traits, and indeed a cluster of novelty-seeking genes has been found in populations that have migrated long distances. It’s possible that these genes were adaptive when Americans were a migratory people. Whether or not they remain adaptive is an open question.

Versions of “We’re Only Human” appear in the Huffington Post and Scientific American Mind. Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September.

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