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Why People Fall In Love With Cities (And How This Can Help Your Mental Health)

A clinical psychologist explores the emotional significance of place.

Get ready for some fancy German words:

Umwelt. Mitwelt. Eigenwelt.

(We’ll come back to these in just a bit.)

I’m excited to be a guest author for Resident Urbanist. By profession I’m a clinical psychologist with a background in cultural anthropology. Aside from any professional rationale, I have a fascination with cities. Cities are perhaps humanity’s greatest artifacts. Each one is different. Each one tells a different story. And just the way one person falls in love with another, people fall in love with specific cities for specific reasons.

I’ve been following urbanist writers like those here at Resident Urbanist for a while now and love the way they explain the technical side of urban living and the prickly issues that are involved with urban diaspora. The clarity they bring has been invaluable to me personally as more and more of the clients I work with in my own practice are grappling with the question of whether to move elsewhere in order to afford the life they want.

In this article, I’d like to lend a psychologist’s perspective to this issue and suggest one way to understand the subjective and emotional reasons that make moving to a new city such a hard decision.

One of the recurring themes in my own writings is the benefits of mindfulness practices as a way of coping with work stress (or any kind of stress for that matter) and the foundational importance of the five senses.

Here's where our fancy German words come into play.

Viktor Frankl, the famed Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, explains that in the quest for personal life meaning, it helps to be aware of three distinct domains of experience.

You guessed it: umwelt, mitwelt, and eigenwelt.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

Umwelt refers to your physical environment, or more precisely, how you experience your physical environment via the five senses. It’s worth noting that each species has a different umwelt. Dogs and other mammals possess a far superior olfactory bulb in the brain allowing them to experience the world through smell in a way humans can only imagine. Reptiles experience heat as a visual element. Bats and whales use echolocation. Some animals can see the rings around Saturn with the naked eye. Technological advancements have even allowed for an augmented sensory world for humans (check out this TED Talk by David Eagleman). 

Mitwelt refers to a person’s social and cultural world – basically how they relate to others. This one can get dicey. Just think about any of the culture wars you’ve seen covered on NPR or your own preferred news outlet. It’s also an important source of connection and collective identity.

Eigenwelt refers to a person’s internal psychological or emotional world or how a person relates to their own self.

Each of these terms relates to urbanism in fascinating ways, but for the topic at hand, the most important takeaway is that emotional experiences are a complex soup of flavors drawn from each of these domains.

A traditional numbers-first approach to psychology tends to see emotional experiences as universal. This makes sense to some degree as most languages have equivalent conceptualizations of joy, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger.

But a culture-first approach to psychology tends to view emotions as interdependent with one’s context and environment. The implication here is that some cultures and languages possess emotions that do not exist anywhere else. Examples include litost in Czech and pena ajena in Spanish.

How does this relate to urban diaspora and the question of whether or not to move cities?


Emotional experiences are a unique combination of umwelt, mitwelt, and eigenwelt (in layman’s terms, unique to your own sensory and social environment),


Some emotions are unique to specific contexts and not universal.


You can’t experience the same emotions in every city.

[Let that sink in.]

If you’re considering moving cities, you’re dealing with the possibility that certain emotions you’ve become accustomed to may be lost. That can be a scary proposition. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

Shared Real Estate: The Analog Connection Between Geography and Neurology

There is a concept in neuropsychology called “shared real estate.” This is when certain parts of the brain are responsible for more than one function.

Imagine walking into an apartment building lobby and calling out for a doctor. To your delight, you find that in that same building there is a physician, an attorney, a physical therapist, and an engineer. They all hear your call and come running to help, each according to his or her own area of expertise.

This is how shared real estate works in the brain.

The specific neurological apartment building of interest here is the amygdala. In somewhat simplistic terms, within that building reside two specialists. The first is responsible for processing sensory information (think umwelt and the five senses). The second is responsible for initiating emotional reactions in the body in terms of adaptive physiological responses (think fight, flight, or freeze).

In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sopalsky takes his readers on an eye-opening (and, as he himself admits, rather depressing) tour de force of the terrible toll that chronic stress has on the long-term health of the human body. Not surprisingly, psychotherapy has been associated with a range of physical health benefits including lowering blood pressure, alleviating chronic pain, and even greater survival among cancer patients.

This is where the shared real estate model becomes vital for mental health and its impact on physical health:

Stress does not happen in an environmental vacuum.

And neither does recovery.

When I work with clients facing overwhelming levels of stress, one of my go-to recommendations is to find a “happy place” in their own city. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Edward Norton visiting his ice cave in the movie Fight Club but with an element of embracing the physical world around them.

This exercise is a way of making use of the shared real estate in the amygdala by charging it with a sensory-rich experience of deep calm and relaxation in the same external geographic location where they usually experience overwhelming stress. It’s a way of calling for the doctor in the apartment lobby. It’s an invitation to fall in love with their city and to let the city love them back by teaching them to experience the world and their place in it in a new way.  

Again, what’s this got to do with moving cities?

There is a deep, analog connection between geography and ingrained neurological patterns. They exist together as a delicate house of cards. Rip away one and the other has to stretch and strain to compensate. This is precisely what happens when we move away from a city we’ve learned to love. It can create a neurological effect akin to phantom limb pain. Perhaps not as catastrophic, but nonetheless real.

To love – and lose – a city is no easy thing. But just like learning to find peace during moments of stress, you can learn to find meaning in a new city.

A Conclusion with Two Poems

Michael Wright is a brilliant writer who authors a publication on art and spirituality called Still Life. Several years ago he introduced me to two poems that capture the ideas presented here with beautiful clarity. I’d like to end by sharing them here.

“Because These Failures Are My Job”
By Alison Luterman

This morning I failed to notice the pearl-gray moment

just before sunrise when everything lightens;

failed also to find bird song under the grinding of garbage trucks,

and later, walking through woods, to stop thinking, thinking,

for even five consecutive steps. Then there was the failure to name

the exact shade of blue overhead, not sapphire, not azure, not delft,

to savor the soft squelch of pine needles underfoot.

Later I found the fork raised halfway to my mouth

while I was still chewing the last untasted bite,

and so it went, until finally, wading into sleep’s thick undertow,

I felt myself drift from dream to dream,

forever failing to comprehend where I am falling from or to:

this blurred life with only moments caught

in attention’s loose sieve —

tiny pearls fished out of oblivion’s sea,

laid out here as offering or apology or thank you



“Aimless Love”

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,

I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor's window,

and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,

without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door—
the love of the miniature orange tree,

the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,

the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor—

just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water

and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up

in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.

I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands

and caught the scent of lavender and stone.


Every city (or town, or rural locale) has something that makes it special – something worth loving. Stretch yourself to experience that love right where you are… or wherever you may be headed.

It’s good for your health.



Author Bio

Austin Johnson, PhD is a clinical psychologist with a background in cultural anthropology. He is the author of Executive Counseling, a newsletter about mental health and work-life stability. He has been featured in CEO Weekly and in various trade publications and academic journals. When not working, he can be found looking for new adventures in food, travel, and music to share with his wife and two children.


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