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Why do places mean so much?

Three small children under the age of five are ankle deep in a wide rockpool. The one on the left wears a bright blue and yellow wetsuit and is carrying a net on a stick. The child is being helped by a parent figure who is crouched down examining the finds shallow water. In the distance there are buildings perched on top of jagged cliffs.
Children rockpooling in Devon | © National Trust Images/Ben Selway

Is there a place that’s part of who you are? Somewhere you feel more like you? We've always believed that natural and historic places have a powerful effect on all of us. Now, for the first time, there's scientific proof. Discover the results of our research into why places matter to people, and learn more about the original research we carried out in 2017.

Why places matter to people

As a conservation charity, with the help of our supporters, we look after the places that we believe bring us genuine happiness and wellbeing.

We carried out research, building on our 2017 findings, which reveals that if someone has a place they hold dear – be it where they got engaged, a place they escape for contemplation, or somewhere they go to remember a loved one – on average they report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.

Download the 'Why places matter to people' report

What did the original 2017 research uncover?

Do you have a childhood memory of a holiday that seems especially vivid? Perhaps just seeing a photograph of a place that you love is enough to make you smile. It turns out that many of us feel this way too.

Although we know which parts of the brain we use when we think about places, nobody has tried to measure the emotional impact of these places before.

We wanted to understand the depth of people’s connection with place so we undertook a research experiment in 2017 to find out. You can read the detailed results in our 'Places that make us' report.

Part one of the 2017 research

In the first part of the research 20 people took part in an experiment, at the University of Surrey.

Researchers at the university measured volunteers’ brain activity while they were shown pictures of landscapes, houses, other locations and personally meaningful objects.

What the researchers observed

The researchers found that places with strong personal ties caused the volunteers' brains to get excited, more excited than looking at any of the other photographs.

Specifically, the scanning showed that an area of the brain associated with emotional responses, called the amygdala, was fired up.

What these observations mean

These responses tell us that we have special relationships with places. Meaningful places have a significance that personal possessions, or more general locations, don’t share.

A close-up from behind the bride and groom on their wedding day at Calke Abbey, with a view of the house in the background on a sunny day
A bride and groom on their wedding day at Calke Abbey | © Leigh McAra

Part two of the 2017 research

In the second part of the research we surveyed more than 2,000 people, asking about their connections to meaningful places.

For many, childhood memories are important.

For others, a link to loved ones forges a special attachment to a particular place.

More surprising was that for over 40 per cent of those we surveyed, their meaningful places were recent discoveries. Whether it’s with family, alone or just out walking the dog, it seems we visit these places to relax, enjoy nature or simply to get away from our everyday cares.

Whatever they might be, our participants agreed strongly on three feelings about favourite places:

  1. A feeling of belonging (86 per cent of respondents strongly agreed)
  2. Feeling physically and emotionally safe (60 per cent of respondents strongly agreed)
  3. Being driven there by a strong internal pull (79 per cent of respondents strongly agreed)

What else do places give us?

The participants in our survey also told us about the calm and joy they experience. Many people said that a visit to their meaningful place grounds them, helps them ease stress and gives them much needed ‘me time’.

These feelings can be hard to put into words, but all point to a sense of positive wellbeing.

Visiting special places moves people in many ways. Ann-Marie’s mother enjoyed the gardens at Claydon, in Buckinghamshire, while her father enjoyed the buildings and history. For Ann-Marie it was the lives of the people who had lived there; the social history.

‘I like the voices and the stories you hear,’ she says, and this keeps her going back for more.

For many, the strongest feelings they could describe were of calm, joy and contentment, energy and a sense of belonging.

Margaret visits Sutton House in London regularly to spend time with retired friends. She says: ‘You have to go there to know, and then you think – oh yes.'

For everyone, for ever

The National Trust was founded 120 years ago with the belief that access to special places was a human need.

Now, as we use science and technology to explore what these places mean to us, it’s clear that this belief is as true today as it was back then.

Places that ignite our curiosity matter, as do the places that make us feel safe and give us a sense of belonging. With your help, we’ll continue to protect them.

Volunteer examining a book as part of conservation work in the library at Greyfriars' House and Garden, Worcestershire

Research at the National Trust

We're an Independent Research Organisation recognised by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our research takes place in many forms – from the PhDs we sponsor and practical testing of new conservation techniques to the hundreds of research projects we collaborate in or host at places in our care each year.

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Why places matter to people 

Download our full research report to read our detailed findings exploring the importance that special places play in people’s lives.


Places that make us 

Download our full 2017 research report into how places affect people, how they become special and why we feel a pull towards them.

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