How of Happiness

The scientific pursuit of happiness

E is for Economy. D is for Downsizing. And S is for Smelling the Roses.

The benefits of living a simpler life.

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 The typical home in the US today is double the size of what it was in 1940, with two or more baths and a mean of two rooms per person (!), but the average individual isn't any happier. Does a couple or small family really need to live in a four-bedroom home with a pool to have a satisfying life?

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
                        – Socrates

A caveat before I even start: This post is not directed at individuals for whom the global economic crisis has made it difficult to make ends meet or who have suddenly lost the resources to satisfy basic needs for food, medical care, safety, and shelter.

This post is for those of us who are doing OK (or even well), but are still terribly stressed about the size of our 401K plans, home values, and ability to obtain credit.

I wish to make the (perhaps unpopular) argument that losing some of the luxuries and the non-necessities to which we have become accustomed may have its benefits and upsides.  The research evidence is now almost indisputable that human beings are terrific “hedonic adapters,” especially when it comes to positive changes in their lives.  We really, really want that bigger TV, more comfortable car, larger home, and deeper savings account, and we feel really happy when we attain those things.  But that burst of happiness doesn’t last long.  Or, to be more accurate, those new monies and possessions don’t make us as happy or for as long as we think they will.

The typical home in the US today is double the size of what it was in 1940, with two or more baths and a mean of two rooms per person (!), but the average individual isn't any happier. Does a couple or small family really need to live in a four-bedroom home with a pool to have a satisfying life?  I may have been born in communist Soviet Union, but I certainly don’t deny that we are all free to pursue whatever individual or private material desires that we wish.  I only caution that such pursuit is not actually so individual or private when it has ramifications for our neighbors, environment, economy, and society at large.  If you bought a house you couldn’t afford, you contributed, however slightly, to the economic crisis surrounding mortgage-backed securities.  (And how many of us have been informed by a [respectable] mortgage company that, according to their “formula,” we supposedly can afford a loan of a certain size, and then been presented with a number that is astoundingly overestimated?  How many of us, after that realization, turned that mortgage down?)

To return to the power of hedonic adaptation, that four-bedroom house will not contribute much to the happiness of someone who upgraded from a three-bedroom one.  Unfortunately, adaptation to the reverse circumstantial change (i.e., downgrading from big to smaller) is more difficult and typically takes longer.  Yet researchers have shown that people are remarkably resilient and usually are able to get used to, accept, and even be happy with less.  (Again, this is true as long as the downsizing does not drive us into an unsafe neighborhood with poor schools and lack of basic services and transportation, or the loss of income or employment does not push us into an unpleasant and stressful work situation or disruption of important social networks.)

However, not only can we resign ourselves to having less, but living a simpler life in a smaller abode, in closer proximity to our family members, may help us to stop and smell the roses.  Researchers have shown that positive experiences are more happiness-inducing and longer-lasting than possessions.  So, spend more free time with your family and friends – taking walks, reading poetry out loud, truly savoring the architecture or natural scenery around you, rather than speeding by it on your way to purchase the next item on your wish list.  Reappreciate the joys of taking out books from the library, listening to the radio, cooking instead of dining out, playing Trivial Pursuit, or watching Monday Night Football or Saturday Night Live on a small TV.

I’ve done the latter and it’s really not that bad.

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Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness.

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