The Pursuit of Square Footage
Why buying that dream house won’t make you whole
This article is part of a package on the American Dream. For more, read Reimagining the American Dream, A New National Narrative, Dreaming Across Class Lines, and Tear Down the White Picket Fence.
We’re happy, my guy and I, but we suspect we could be happier. In fact, we’re betting on it. Along with our friend Keri, we’re shoveling a quarter of a million dollars into the renovation of an old house in Vancouver. Soon we will be enjoying 2,600 square feet of floor space, nine-foot ceilings, reconditioned fir floors, and not one but two living rooms.
Though we know maxing out our ecological footprint might involve picking up some bad carbon karma, we’re guided by the instinctive sense that a bigger nest is a happier nest. We feel somewhere deep in our guts that we need this house in order to be happy.
Unfortunately, it has recently been revealed that our guts may be fooling us. The psychological matrix that fuels our desire for more square footage also ensures that we will be thoroughly unsatisfied once we settle into our new place. This bad news comes from a growing body of happiness research conducted by economists, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists. The field offers insight into how our cities and our emotional lives shape each other, as well as a map of the minefield laid around the walls of the happy house.
To my chagrin, I didn’t discover any of this until I had already signed my first mortgage.
My education began with a treatise written by University of Chicago economists Luis Rayo and Gary Becker, who poured evolutionary theory into an algorithm that could be used to prove, among other things, that the big-home urge is woven into our genes, a hand-me-down from our Paleolithic ancestors.
Evolutionary theorists suggest that the hunter-gatherer who is oriented to dissatisfaction, who compulsively looks ahead in order to kill more game than he did yesterday, or more than the Joneses in the cave next door caught today, is more likely to pass on his genes. This is part of the reason we’ve come to assess material success in relative terms. Like eyes, which perceive color and luminosity relative to surrounding objects, the brain constantly adjusts its idea of what it needs to be happy. We compare what we have now to what other people have, and what we might get next, and then we recalibrate our measure of happiness.
This shifting happiness function served our ancestors well. But it has been less useful in the age of affluence. Most of us don’t need to worry about freezing or starving to death. Yet our happiness barometer continues to compare our living rooms and countertops and backyard barbecues with a constantly modified ideal.
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