Are McMansions Making People Any Happier?
Do you send a group text to get the family down for dinner?
Recently I came across this interesting article in the Atlantic by Joe Pinsker reviewing a study of the size of American homes and the relative satisfaction levels of their owners. The conclusion? Larger homes don’t make people happier. This didn’t surprise me particularly, but it was interesting to see that questions like these are becoming worthy of the attention of researchers.
People living in rapidly-growing communities like Park City or Lehi won’t be surprised to learn that American homes are getting steadily larger. Between 1973 (when the Census Bureau started tracking home sizes) and 2015, the median size of a newly built house in the US has increased by nearly 1,000 square feet (from just over 1,500 square feet, to nearly 2,500).
Why do we keep making our homes bigger? The average family size has actually declined in that same time period (3.7 people per household in the 1970’s to 3.14 in 2018 according to the Census Bureau), so it isn’t a need to accommodate more people that’s driving the increase. Instead it appears that people still have a desperate need to keep up with or exceed the Joneses. But it doesn’t seem to give them the outcome they’re seeking.
In “The McMansion Effect”, Pinsker reviews a study by Clément Bellet, a postdoctoral fellow at the European business school INSEAD, and notes that “despite a major upscaling of single-family houses since 1980, house satisfaction has remained steady in American suburbs.” Bellet believes that this has to do with the problem of comparison (a common theme in our yoga classes.) In the case of houses, apparently people do generally say that their larger homes initially make them happy. The problem arises when someone moves into the neighborhood and builds a house bigger than yours. The initial pleasure doesn’t last.
The article goes on to discuss a number of other salient points around this issue, including:
- Wealth inequality: In the roughly thirty years from 1980 to 2009, Clément Bellet estimates “that the size of the largest 10 percent of houses increased 1.4 times as fast as did the size of the median house.” People in the middle who felt proud of the ‘large’ home they borrowed every penny to own 10 years ago may now find themselves even further behind.
- Subjective well-being: Large homes as a source of envy and disappointment are just the latest in a long list of “stuff” items that everyone feels they must have to be happy.
- Atomization of the American family: Gone are the days when everyone in the house had to gather together to watch a TV show, brush their teeth or play a game. With homes large enough for everyone to have their own space, they may gain some comfort, but also loneliness. In gargantuan homes, people barely have to interact.
To me, the most interesting lesson here is that even as practices such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are on the rise around the globe, and the lessons associated with these practices — such as ‘happiness doesn’t come from stuff’ — are widely acknowledged to be true, we are simply unable to walk the talk.
I’m guilty myself. Whether it’s my belongings, my wardrobe or my home, I still notice the far-too-frequent voice in my head that says, “theirs are nicer,” “mine is out-dated,” or “why don’t we have a media room?” It’s really quite astonishing how one can know intellectually that something is true (‘if I had that fancy dress, it would only make me happier for a short period of time’), and yet be frequently incapable of living that truth.
Fortunately, intellectual knowledge is the first step in the right direction. As with addiction recovery, in order to get off the hamster wheel of desire, you must first recognize that it isn’t the correct path to happiness. In fact, the answer lies within. You have an opportunity every minute of every day to choose happiness or suffering. The desire, jealousy, and frustration responses are just that: responses. They are not real, in and of themselves.
So when you find yourself looking at your neighbor’s home and thinking, “why don’t I have what they have?”, take a moment to recognize what your brain is doing (reacting) and then make a choice with your response. Which will make you happier: feeling envious, or feeling gratitude that you have a home in a lovely neighborhood, with a beautiful view, and the time to look around?