The Pursuit of Square Footage

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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.

This conundrum is particularly urgent in Vancouver, Canada’s most expensive real estate market. People seeking big homes have to chase that dream right out to the edge of suburbia. But life in the sprawlscape punishes them in ways that rarely make it into the home-buying calculus.

Take commuting, for example. You would think that people would put up with a long commute if that pain were balanced out by, say, the pleasure of living in a finer home. A landmark study of German commuters, however, found that the longer their commutes, the less happy people are with life in general. While we become dulled over time to the wonders of our new houses, we never get used to ongoing irritations like tailgaters, or gridlock, or missing dinner with the family.

The contractors lifted our old house off its crumbling foundations last June. They poured concrete, built new walls, and lowered the thing in July. Windows arrived in August. In September, we decided we needed a new roof and vaulted ceilings over the kitchen. We wrote more checks, and I fretted into October. Was this house going to be an expensive machine for unhappiness? Was it even on the right street? This last question, I soon found out, is just as important as the shape of the house, and the answer is tied to how we feel about the Joneses.

Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky has found that low-ranking baboons get stressed out under the constant, threatening frowns of alpha males. Their bodies respond by pumping out hormones that are terrific for powering short sprints away from aggressors but terrible for long-term health. Sapolsky pointed out to me that humans are affected by status just as much as other primates are. For example, a study of thousands of British civil servants found that bureaucrats with lower social ranking died younger than their superiors. In the United States, the poor are sickest in cities where income disparity is widest, suggesting that merely feeling poor can hurt us.

Sapolsky believes his baboons might have something to teach us about how to deal with status anxiety. Average baboons mitigate the stress of subordination by hanging out, picking and eating parasites from one another’s fur–in other words, by spending quality time with friends. It’s the same with humans. We have evolved to be social. Think again of our hunter-gatherer ancestors: When they worked together, they fared much better against enemies and toothy beasts. Our bodies still reward us for playing well with others. When we cooperate or have trusting interactions, our brains pump out oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel good.

Trust, then, offers a fast track to happiness, but what does it have to do with real estate? Tons, as it turns out. Economists at the University of British Columbia mashed up Canadian survey and census data and found that the happiest neighborhoods in big cities tend to be those where trust is highest.

 “A slight boost in neighborly trust has a greater effect on happiness than doubling your income,” Christopher Barrington-Leigh, one of the study’s authors, assured me.

It’s hard to put happiness theory to work in a personal real estate strategy, especially when you are part of a species programmed to make the wrong decisions.

But the market may have been kind to my man and me, in a roundabout way. We weren’t employing happy economics when we chose our new abode. We just couldn’t afford a house of our own. That’s how we came to buy a third of Keri’s 100-year-old creaker on the cheap side of town. The house was cramped, but interest rates were low. It seemed natural to borrow more cash and invest it in a renovation. Everyone else was doing it. Now the place has grown three extra bedrooms. It’s bigger than the neighbors’ houses, bigger than all our friends’ houses, too, and our mortgage payments have grown apace.

According to the arithmetic of well-being, this financial maxing out is a recipe for misery, especially if we decide to feed our monster mortgage by working harder or longer. Instead, we have chosen not to let our house become proof of Rayo and Becker’s unhappiness formula.

No, we’re not selling it. We’re filling all those spare rooms with renters.

I never imagined I’d be living with a gaggle of roomies when I hit 40. From a distance, the prospect has the appearance of a kind of half-assed slackerism, a failure to maintain a respectable status trajectory. Yet on good days, I envision a model straight from the hedonic textbooks. We will fill those rooms with four, five, six bodies. We will all cross paths in the unfinished kitchen. Since we won’t have the money to eat out, we will share meals on an old table alongside our recycled cabinets. There will be wine, too. Lots of wine.

Our acquisitive, status-hungry genes may wish for a life more grand, more private, more sweepingly elegant and expansively lonely. But scarcity will have relegated us to a life of conviviality and trust. It will be hard to avoid the shared moments that drench baboons, cavemen, and even middle-aged slackers in feel-good neurotransmitters. If the economists are right, this big house just may render us happy, in spite of our unrealized desires.

Journalist Charles Montgomery is the author of the award-winning book The Shark of God. Reprinted from the Walrus (Jan.-Feb. 2008). Subscriptions: Canadian $29.75/yr. (10 issues) from Box 915, Station Main, Markham, ON L3P 9Z9, Canada;

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