Will a New House Bring You Happiness?

August 30th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

I was having a conversation with a friend recently about happiness. Our conversation began with her asking me if I thought that buying a new house would make her happier (she asked this question only half facetiously). My initial reaction was that a house can’t bring happiness. In fact, a robust finding of the growing body of research on happiness is that money and material things don’t increase happiness once basic needs are met (and her current house exceeds that minimal threshold). Further, contrary to popular perception, some of the best predictors of happiness have nothing to do with “stuff” (as George Carlin riffed so insightfully and humorously in his now-famous rant). The quality of your relationships, a satisfying career, having a passion for something, pursuing meaningful goals, and having a positive attitude bring people the most happiness.

But then I got to thinking about the meaning of a house (and other stuff) beyond its shelter and comforts. I decided that a house could potentially make my friend happier, but only if two criteria are met. One, is the house in which she currently lives (e.g., the physical structure, neighborhood, or location) inconsistent with what she values or the lifestyle that she wants to lead? For example, if you live in a suburban development, but love the city, open space, or 1920’s home architecture, then your house might interfere with your happiness. Two, would a new house be more consistent with what she values and enhance the quality of her life experience? For instance, does its design give you aesthetic pleasure or does its location give you easy access to activities that you enjoy?

In other words, happiness doesn’t come from our stuff, but the values that underlie our stuff and how it impacts the quality of our lives. For example, I have several very nice bikes and they make me happy. But they don’t make me happy because I own the bikes or they are expensive or they look very cool (if you’re into bikes), but rather because they are consistent with my values of exercise and the outdoors, and they enhance the quality of my biking experience.

Will things outside of ourselves make a sea change in our happiness? I’m not sure. But I do believe that the more we align our outer worlds (e.g., home, neighborhood, marriage, friends, work, avocations; each of us has our own list) with our inner worlds (what gives us meaning, satisfaction, and joy), the more likely happiness will result. So, finding happiness is about creating that congruence between our inner and outer worlds, our values and the lives we live.

A danger in looking for the stuff that will be consistent with what we value is that if it continues to escape us, we may continue looking for and getting more stuff that we think will provide that fit. In fact, that’s a real problem in our “aspirational” culture where so many are looking for the B.B.D. (bigger, better deal) in the futile belief that they will, sooner or later, after much consumption, find that thing that will bring them true happiness. Of course, in all likelihood, they won’t because they’re looking in the wrong places.

Now here’s an interesting question: If people align their lives with “bad” values (I realize I’m making a judgment here), for example, celebrity, physical appearance, and conspicuous consumption, in other words, just about everything that is valued in our popular culture, will they find happiness according to my theory? As I noted above, according to the research, the answer to that question is no. But if you really believe that a fancy car, a role on a reality-TV show, or augmented breasts will make you happy, well then, wouldn’t it? I’m not thoroughly convinced one way or the other, but I guess I’ll conclude to the contrary. I believe that there is something intrinsically meaningful in things that really do bring happiness and that intrinsic value is simply missing from those superficial things.

My friend offered what might be a better alternative than trying to change our lives to better fit our values. She suggested that, rather than changing our outer world, we should alter our inner world. In other words, we should change our values or our attitude toward what we have so we can more comfortably accept the life we have instead of pining for the life we wish for. For example, we could focus on the joys that our present life provides or simply be grateful for what we have. Or we could look other places that might more directly influence our happiness, such as our relationships, work, or even within ourselves. This approach has the benefit of saving us a lot of time and money because we wouldn’t be looking for and buying that next thing that we absolutely know will bring us happiness. A downside to this strategy is that it may be harder to change our minds than to change our stuff; years of therapy or yoga or Eat, Pray, Love global searching may be even more time consuming and expensive.

I suppose when all is said and done (and, by the way, more is almost always said than done), the best way to find that happiness that eludes so many of us is to strike a balance between changing our inner and outer worlds, in which we make small changes to both. In this process, we can more easily create that sought-after alignment between our values and our lives by bringing our two worlds closer together without requiring a 7.3-on-the-richter-scale “lifequake.” The result of which is, happily enough, happiness.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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11 Responses to “Will a New House Bring You Happiness?”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Nicely done, Jim. And I love Carlin’s “stuff” bit.

    I’ve often thought about what makes people happy. In terms of buying a house, we’ve all been sold (or, actually, sold ourselves) on the dream of homeownership. A couple of decades ago, not only was it a source of happiness for many, it was an excellent investment for most homeowners. But times have changed, in large measure because of politics. Once the government became more and more involved during the past three decades or so, the “right” to buy a house went from being a silly concept to being a reality. That gave us people buying half-million dollar houses on incomes that were ridiculously insufficient, the infamous “liar loans,” and reliance on “flipping” and re-financing in a market that it was assumed — incorrectly — would always go up. So what generated happiness in the beginning resulted in misery down the road.

    Of the many different kinds of happiness, I suppose we could say, the most difficult to deal with is short-term happiness versus long-term happiness — the former doesn’t always lead to the latter. A good example is the intense happiness one might realize from regularly munching Cinnabons and the expanding waistline that results in very unhappy sessions in front of a mirror. Unlike obvious examples like that, where cause and effect can clearly be anticipated, home-buying is a gamble. A lot of people bought homes in the 90s and early 00s who had the income to afford it, maybe with a little stretching, but they had every reason to believe that their initial happiness would last for the long term. Then their worlds collapsed with the housing collapse.

    So what does all this tell us about happiness? Maybe all we can do is think it through first, then do it if it makes sense and makes us happy — then hope that the unanticipated stuff that will eventually hit the fan misses us.

  2. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Tom: Excellent thoughts. One thing I would add. You use the example of a Cinnabon as a source of happiness. Here is where America (and soon the rest of the world) has really veered off course. People doesn’t experience happiness after eating a Cinnabon, rather they experience pleasure, due to the changes in the brain caused by sugar and fat which, in distant times past, had survival value because both provided stores of nutrition during times of low food supply. But I digress. Our popular culture has led many to conflate pleasure with happiness. You refer to it as short-term happiness, but there really isn’t such a thing. Happiness is an enduring rather than transitory quality. Mood may go up or down due to the vicissitudes of life, but happiness stays steady.

    As for homeownership, Americans were sold on the idea that homeownership would provide that lasting happiness and it did to a degree in the past because it provided a sense of security and stability that are important for happiness. But the recent changes in the real estate, credit, job, and economic markets have changed that.

    As to what we can do, as you indicate, think it through, be realistic, be conservative by considering the worst case scenarios, and be sure that you have a back-up plan should things go awry (which they seem to be doing more frequently these days).

    As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for…

  3. Lisa |

    I’ve never equated happiness to a house or the things I own. Sometimes those things make me feel more comfortable but they have never affected my happiness level. Nor have I ever thought about being unhappy and believing I need to go on a shopping spree to become happier. I agree with you Dr Jim, it doesn’t have anything to do with things. Sometimes I think happiness has to do with being balanced and centered, and achieving that will be different for us all.

  4. Tom Carter |

    I don’t know, Jim — when I get my mitts on a Cinnabon or a Whopper, it’s so pleasant that I find myself being very, very happy. If that isn’t short-term happiness, what is it?

    One gets married, let’s say, and has the perfect marriage and true happiness for five years, then walks in on the spouse in flagrante with the interior decorator. Was the five years of happiness not really happiness? Seems to me time isn’t the defining factor….

  5. d |

    Is a cinnabon really that good,Tom? I have never tasted one,probably should not. Houses do not bring happiness,for sure. I have had and had not,and believe me the had not, was just as miserable as the had,when I was unhappy. You have to change yourself to be happy,and others cannot help or hurt,only open your eyes. The interior decorator?
    I think the American people have mistaken food pleasure with real hapiness,but the food pleasure does not last long at all,ala,another cinnabon,or whopper. We all seem to fall prey to this afliction,why do they have to make food taste so good?
    I do think if you are poor or rich,you can be equally happy or sad,but,your comfort level is important for extended happiness.

  6. Brian |

    I’d suggest that “things” not be the object of happiness, but rather the result of it. One can be perfectly happy without “things,” but if one’s happiness is tied to industry and productivity, there will certainly be material things in abundance. If one’s happiness is tied to gardening or charity work or hand-crafting long bows, well, the material things won’t be in such abundance.

    The error that far too many people make is thinking that some of the wealthy people are happy because of their things. If you’re not happy without “things,” you won’t be happy with them, either.

    You can decide to wake up every morning and be happy, or you can wake up every morning and not decide to be anything, permitting your circumstances to be your mood. For the latter group, happiness will never be attainable.

  7. d |

    Long bows are material things.:-)

  8. Brian |

    So is the produce from a garden. Plus, I don’t think anybody that’s not into primitive archery would consider a hand-made long bow or recurve bow a particularly desirable “thing.”

  9. d |

    I think you underestimate them,lots of folk have and desire them. Garden food is a necessity,at least food is. Not a material thing. Food is essential for survival,bows aren’t,not now,maybe a long time ago. You do need material things to make this long bow. Everyone no matter how primitive, has some material things.

  10. Brian |

    Doris, you’re missing the point. I don’t handcraft longbows to have more material things – it isn’t the destination that makes me happy, it’s the journey of crafting something that I can see in my mind’s eye and translate that to my hands. It’s the productivity that brings me joy, not the product.

    Growing my own food also makes me happy. That it is a necessity is utterly irrelevant. Happiness is in the doing, not in the having. Of the two of us, one sees materialism for what it is, and the other seems to be operate under the idea that it is the materials themselves which bring happiness.

    The bow doesn’t spring into existence of it’s own accord, nor does the food grow without considerable time and effort (and no small amount of knowledge, either). My happiness is in satisfying my own ego with what I know and with what I am capable of doing. The pride in my bows isn’t the bows themselves, but the fact that I made them myself.

  11. Clarissa |

    Great post!!! Thank you for writing it!

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