4 Questions to Ask Yourself When Deciding How to Live

Profound life choices beyond matters of marriage, children, and work

Posted Mar 17, 2016

Among the most profound questions we can ask ourselves is how we want to live our lives. Ask yourself that, and you may find your mind going straight to issues such as: Do I want to marry? Do I want to raise children? What kind of work do I want to do?

Matters of marriage and children and work are significant ones, but they don't deserve to get so much attention that they squeeze out other considerations that shape the course of our lives. There are other fundamental decisions about how to live that can have enormous consequences for the happiness, health, and meaningfulness we glean from our lives.

Among those basic choices are decisions about living arrangements. Ask realtors about how and where to live and they will probably tell you about square footage, amenities, and location, location, location. They have good reasons for that.

But in the years I spent interviewing people about the ways they were living, and asking them to show me their homes and sometimes their communities, too, I learned that other, more psychological and emotional experiences were also of great significance.

Here's some of what I said about that in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century (adapted slightly):

"When I ask people what matters to them in deciding how and with whom to live, they mention everything from dealing with the tasks of everyday life to existential concerns about who will care for them in later life. On a psychological level, there are two things that just about everyone wants, though in vastly different proportions. You won’t find them mentioned in real estate circulars, in reports from demographers about the ways we live, or (with rare exceptions) in the writings of architects, builders, or city planners.

"They want time with other people and time to themselves. Everyone is seeking just the right mix of sociability and solitude, with both easy to come by…

"In choosing a way to live, people are also regulating access to themselves in ways that are both profound and mundane. Whether they end up satisfied with their situations depends on the fit between what they want, psychologically, and what their living arrangements afford. The important questions include:

  1. To what extent do you want to know other people and be known by them?
  2. How much control do you want over the depth to which you are known by other people?
  3. Do you like the sense of presence of other people? (for example, hearing them outside the door of the room you are in)
  4. Is solitude something you enjoy now and then or something you crave?

"People who want to know other people and be known to them are happy to engage in the day-to-day exchanges of pleasantries, but they don’t want their contacts with their fellow humans to end there. They want to be friends and not just acquaintances.

"A New York Times story captured the essence of the conditions conducive to the development of close friendships, as documented in social science research: 'proximity, repeated and unplanned interactions, and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.'"

If you want to know other people and be known to them, you don't care about controlling the depth to which you are known by other people, you like the presence of other people, and you enjoy solitude now and then but it is not something you crave, then you may be happiest in a living arrangement characterized by a lot of closeness and togetherness. You would probably enjoy living under the same roof with other people, whether a group of friends or a multigenerational household or a spouse and kids or your own special mix of people.

If solitude feels more like a need to you than a mere preference, if you find the sense of presence of other people distracting or annoying, and you like having a fair amount of control over what people know about you and how they get to know it, then you would probably most enjoy living alone. If, for whatever reasons, you cannot live alone, you will probably want to have a special place you can go where you will not be disturbed. Just having a room to yourself, where you can shut the door and know that no one will walk through it without first asking, can be a godsend to the kinds of people I just described.

Among the most fascinating lifespaces I visited for my research on How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century were the ones that work best for those who are real people-persons but who really like their own space, too. I described many of those ways of living in the chapter, "Living in Community: From Neighbors to Friends," and also here and there throughout the book. In these arrangements, people have a place of their own, but they also live right next to other people, all of whom want to live in a real community. Cohousing is an example of that, but many of the people I interviewed created their own informal versions of having their own place within a community of other people interested in meaningful relationships.

What I call "lifespace literature," which is "about the lives we envision and then build around our places, our spaces, and our people," gets far too little attention in the media and in scholarly journals. But there was a wonderful exception to that neglect in the February 2016 print issue of Psychology Today.  The issue opens with the article, "Brave new digs," which posed the question, "As the spotlight on the nuclear family fades, how will we define 'home'"? Nine other brief articles followed, exploring all sorts of intriguing issues in the psychology of how we live now. Some of my favorites were "There's no place like it" ("The desire for one special spot is an essential part of who we are"), "Know your space" ("Familiar places sometimes seem like characters in our lives"), and "My room, my rules" ("Living spaces reflect the inner lives of their inhabitants."). The complete table of contents is here, if you want to check out these articles or any others. Happy reading!

[Notes. (1) You can read more about How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century here. (2) My latest article in the Washington Post is "Singles have fewer benefits than married couples – but are slowly gaining more." (3) For collections of articles on all different aspects of single life, click here.]