A Brief Historical Perspective on Homesickness

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Through history, homesickness has not only been of interest to poets and writers, scientists have also shown interest in this phenomenon. Nevertheless, as far back as the seventeenth century, the importance of a systematic study of homesickness was recognized, particularly by Swiss investigators. For instance, Johannes Hofer concluded that homesickness was an illness of young people who were socially isolated in strange countries, whereas Scheuzer speculated that the cause of nostalgic feelings among Swiss soldiers in France was the deprivation of the refined Swiss air (Rosen, 1975). On the other hand, Detharding (cited in Bergsma, 1963) suggested that it was the depressing Swiss air which led to feelings of homesickness among French soldiers in Switzerland. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries homesickness, in these days often called nostalgia, was considered to be a disease of certain ethnic groups, predominantly the Swiss. Since early work on homesickness was focused, in particular, on hospitalized patients suffering from other diseases. This view was not eroded until the last decades of the nineteenth century, when developments in medicine led to a better understanding of the symptoms of homesickness.

In a study comparing homesick and non-homesick individuals, McCann (1943) described homesickness as an emotional pattern to which introverts were particularly susceptible. Finally, in reviewing the literature on nostalgia, Zwingmann (1959) described it as a stress reaction in which people mentally returned to times and places that were thought of as having had the greatest “gratificational value.”

Defining Features of Homesickness

Over the course of many years, several studies with a wide range of participants of varying ages (i.e., boarding school students, nurses, university students, and soldiers), have resulted in various interesting findings. Across studies, the written descriptions revealed that key features of homesickness were thought by most people to be memories and feelings centered on missing parents, grieving for the home environment, and longing for old friends. In addition to these dominant themes, definitions also included mood states, physiological complaints, attitudes towards the new environment, and orientation elements. For instance, participants often reported feeling depressed, anxious, ill, dissatisfied, or disoriented (Fisher, 1989). Interestingly, in all of these studies, Fisher and colleagues collected written definitions from both homesick and non-homesick participants. One might expect that those experiencing homesickness would have different perspectives on its definition as compared to non-homesick individuals. However, this did not prove to be the case. In fact, the definitions of homesickness did not distinguish those who reported experiencing homesickness from those who did not report experiencing homesickness.

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