Me Want More Square Footage!

Why following the urge to buy big might not make you happy

Illustration by Luis Rayo

We live in a basement suite, my guy and I. At five foot two, he isn’t bothered by the low ceiling, while I am mercifully developing calluses on my forehead from collisions with door frames and low-hanging lights. Now that we’ve squeezed the futon into the storage nook, it’s almost like having a bedroom. If we keep the floor clear of books (mine), hiking gear (ours), and dirty laundry (his), we cope just fine.

Still, we suspect we could be happier. In fact, we’re betting on it. Along with our friend Keri, we’re shovelling a quarter of a million dollars into the renovation of an old house a few blocks away. By the time you read this, we should be enjoying 2,600 square feet of floor space, nine-foot ceilings, reconditioned fir floors, and not one but two living rooms.

Like most people, we’re guided by the instinctive sense that a bigger nest is a happier nest. Though we know maxing out our ecological footprint might involve picking up some bad carbon karma, 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 army of economists, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists obsessed with happiness. The field offers plenty of insight into how our cities and our emotional lives shape each other, as well as a rudimentary 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 an obscure treatise written by a pair of University of Chicago economists. Luis Rayo and his Nobel Prize–winning colleague, Gary S. Becker, poured evolutionary theory into an algorithm that could be used to prove, among other things, that the big-home urge is woven right into our genes, a hand-me-down from our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Imagine the caveman on a good day: He and his pals have managed to whack a deer and drag its bloodied carcass back to the clan. He feels terrific. Now he’s faced with a couple of options. He can sit around and bask in his success, or, compelled by the idea of what he might catch next, he can head out on the hunt once again. 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 colour 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 possibly get next, and then we recalibrate our measure of happiness. In Rayo and Becker’s model, happiness is less an ideal state than a tool our genes use to get us working harder and grasping for more stuff, whether we enjoy the struggle or not.

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. “We are victims of that evolutionary hunting strategy,” Rayo explained when I called him to discuss my real estate challenge. “There’s a difference between what’s natural and what’s good.”

This conundrum is particularly urgent in Vancouver, the country’s most expensive real estate market. The average price of a detached house on the city’s affluent west side has hit $726,000. 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 only put up with a long commute if that pain was balanced out by, say, the pleasure of living in a finer home. This behaviour would agree with the golden rule of economics that stipulates humans make rational choices to maximize utility. However, a landmark study of German commuters found that those who suffer long drives to work and back are not maximizing utility at all. In fact, the longer their commutes, the less happy they are with life in general. Rayo says this is because while we become dulled to the wonders of our new houses over time, we never get used to ongoing irritations, like tailgaters, or gridlock, or missing dinner with the family. And there is plenty of irritation to be had: the average Canadian now spends nearly twelve full days a year travelling between work and home.

I’ve been tempted by the suburbs myself. With their wide lawns and cul-de-sacs, they seem to offer a rough approximation of the pastoral landscapes that made our ancestors feel safe. This is an illusion. In the US, at least, people who live in low-density sprawl are more likely to die violently than their inner-city cousins—thanks mostly to car accidents. Meanwhile, a Columbia University study found that suburban kids are far more likely to get hooked on drugs and booze. Why? Not enough chill-out time with their parents, for one thing. And where are suburban parents in those crucial after-school hours? Drumming their dashboards on marathon commutes home from distant offices. We are fooled by the suburbs’ verdant disguise, even as they lock us into more dangerous lives.

Not that it’s hard to fool us. The happiness economists have come to believe that people are almost always wrong when predicting how content today’s choices will make them in the future.

Even though my new house sits well inside the commuter’s divide, this revelation has been cause for some anxiety these past months. The contractors lifted our old house off its crumbling foundations in June. They poured concrete, built new walls, and lowered the thing in July. Windows arrived in August. In September, we were convinced we needed a new roof and vaulted ceilings over the kitchen. We wrote more cheques, 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.

During twenty years of research among baboons in the Serengeti, woolly Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky found that low-ranking baboons got stressed out under the constant, threatening frowns of alpha males. Their bodies responded by pumping out hormones that were terrific for powering short sprints away from aggressors but terrible for long-term health. Sapolsky pointed out to me that humans are just as affected by status as other primates. For example, a study of thousands of British civil servants found that bureaucrats with lower social ranking died younger than their superiors. In the US, 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 co-operate or have trusting interactions, our brains pump out oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. The best part about this is that we never get used to these positive interactions the way we get used to money or more stuff.

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 neighbourhoods in big cities tend to be those where trust is highest.

Here in Vancouver, feelings of trust flow most freely in wealthy neighbourhoods. In other words, folks in spiffy West Vancouver are unlikely to panic if they drop their wallet while walking the dog. They know a neighbour will return it. Folks in the city’s beleaguered Downtown Eastside don’t share the same confidence.

Given the importance of trust, maybe I’d be better off owning the humblest shack on the best street in West Vancouver. Chris Barrington-Leigh, one of the ubc study authors, admitted that a superficial reading of his work might support that conclusion. Along with the high trust apparently swirling around wealthy neighbourhoods, the data reveals a twist on the status equation: while we do keep tabs on how the Joneses are faring, we actually absorb their successes. If Mrs. Jones buys a Ferrari, I may feel comparatively impoverished, but if she parks it out front I will also feel a certain ownership of her status. “You end up caring about your neighbours,” Barrington-Leigh told me. “I’m not just talking about empathy. I’m talking about considering your neighbours as part of your identity, and then comparing your neighbourhood to others.” We don’t just measure our success against our neighbours’ success, we measure it against that of everyone else in the city.

However, Barrington-Leigh urges caution about using the wealth/trust matrix as a reference guide for home buying. Sure, living among rich neighbours might crank up my sense of status more than it would corrode it. But buying a more expensive house in a fancier neighbourhood would also commit me to an even heftier mortgage, which would lock me into working harder, which means I’d have less time to hang out and scratch my friends’ backs. This back-scratching, or potlucking, or poker-nighting, or block-watching is the most efficient way of all to increase long-term well-being. “A slight boost in neighbourly trust has a greater effect on happiness than doubling your income,” Barrington-Leigh assured me. And here’s the clincher: it’s the trust we feel in our friends and neighbours that makes us happy, not the trust they happen to feel for one another. It’s easier to cultivate trust among the pals we’ve got than to try to catch a free ride by moving into a trusting neighbourhood.

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 policy-makers have begun to pick up the slack. Britain’s Labour government used it to reform that country’s unemployment system. The city of Bogotá used research on status to underpin a restructuring of its road system, taking prime space away from cars and giving it to buses, bikes, and pedestrians so poor commuters could feel more equal. Optimism shot up.

How would the lessons from well-being research inform a happier home policy? Would we tax big house lots as we do booze and cigarettes? Slap tolls on highways to push people into denser neighbourhoods? Combine old folks’ homes with child care centres? The theory may actually support such measures, but it could just as easily be used to justify herding the poor into low-income ghettos such as the Downtown Eastside—after all, the jobless feel markedly better when they hang out with other unemployed people. The territory is as risky and uncertain as my own big-house conundrum.

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 in a quiet, leafy nook of East Vancouver, 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 neighbours’ 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 for more money. Instead, we have chosen not to let our house become proof of Rayo’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 forty. 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 have glimpsed in the half-framed shell and flapping plastic of our house 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 voices will carry over the arm’s length to our neighbours’ windows, and they will come over to borrow cups of sugar.

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.

Charles Montgomery