In the search for happiness, we often confuse how something looks with how it’s likely to make us feel. This is especially true when it comes to our homes. If we want to maximize happiness, we need to prioritize experiences over appearances.
Most of us try to make decisions intended to bring us greater happiness. The problem is that we misunderstand how our choices really impact our well-being and end up making ones that have the opposite effect. We buy stuff that purports to inspire happiness and end up feeling depressed instead. Knowing some of the typical pitfalls in the search for happiness—especially the ones that seem to go against common sense—can help us improve quality of life.
It’s an old adage that experiences make us happier than physical things. But knowing is not the same as doing. One area this is all too apparent is when it comes to choosing where to live. You might think that how a home looks is vital to how happy you are living in it. Wrong! The experience of a living space is far more important than its appearance.
The influence of appearance
In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery explores some of the ways in which we misunderstand how our built environment and the ways we move through cities influence our happiness.
Towards the end of their first year at Harvard, freshmen find out which dormitory they will be living in for the rest of their time at university. Places are awarded via a lottery system, so individual students have no control over where they end up. Harvard’s dormitories are many and varied in their design, size, amenities, age, location, and overall prestige. Students take allocation seriously, as the building they’re in inevitably has a big influence on their experience at university. Or does it?
Montgomery points to two Harvard dormitories. Lowell House, a stunning red brick building with a rich history, is considered the most prestigious of them all. Students clamor to live in it. Who could ever be gloomy in such a gorgeous building?
Meanwhile, Mather House is a much-loathed concrete tower. It’s no one’s first choice. Most students pray for a room in the former and hope to be spared the latter, because they think their university experience will be as awful-looking as the building. (It’s worth noting that although the buildings vary in appearance, neither is lacking any of the amenities a student needs to live. Nor is Mather House in any way decrepit.)
The psychologist Elizabeth Dunn asked a group of freshmen to predict how each of the available dormitories might affect their experience of Harvard. In follow-up interviews, she compared their lived experience with those initial predictions. Montgomery writes:
The results would surprise many Harvard freshmen. Students sent to what they were sure would be miserable houses ended up much happier than they had anticipated. And students who landed in the most desirable houses were less happy than they expected to be. Life in Lowell House was fine. But so was life in the reviled Mather House. Overall, Harvard’s choice dormitories just didn’t make anyone much happier than its spurned dormitories.
Why did students make this mistake and waste so much energy worrying about dormitory allocation? Dunn found that they “put far too much weight on obvious differences between residences, such as location and architectural features, and far too little on things that were not so glaringly different, such as the sense of community and the quality of relationships they would develop in their dormitory.”
Asked to guess if relationships or architecture are more important, most of us would, of course, say relationships. Our behavior, however, doesn’t always reflect that. Dunn further states:
This is the standard mis-weighing of extrinsic and intrinsic values: we may tell each other that experiences are more important than things, but we constantly make choices as though we didn’t believe it.
When we think that the way a building looks will dictate our experience living in it, we are mistaking the map for the territory. Architectural flourishes soon fade into the background. What matters is the day-to-day experience of living there, when relationships matter much more than how things look. Proximity to friends is a higher predictor of happiness than charming old brick.
The impact of experience
Some things we can get used to. Some we can’t. We make a major mistake when we think it’s worthwhile to put up with negative experiences that are difficult to grow accustomed to in order to have nice things. Once again, this happens when we forget that our day-to-day experience is paramount in our perception of our happiness.
Take the case of suburbs. Montgomery describes how many people in recent decades moved to suburbs outside of American cities. There, they could enjoy luxuries like big gardens, sprawling front lawns, wide streets with plenty of room between houses, spare bedrooms, and so on. City dwellers imagined themselves and their families spreading out in spacious, safe homes. But American cities ended up being shaped by flawed logic, as Montgomery elaborates:
Neoclassical economics, which dominated the second half of the twentieth century, is based on the premise that we are all perfectly well equipped to make choices that maximize utility. . . . But the more psychologists and economists examine the relationship between decision-making and happiness, the more they realize that this is simply not true. We make bad choices all the time. . . . Our flawed choices have helped shape the modern city—and consequently, the shape of our lives.
Living in the suburbs comes at a price: long commutes. Many people spend hours a day behind the wheel, getting to and from work. On top of that, the dispersed nature of suburbs means that everything from the grocery store to the gym requires more extended periods of time driving. It’s easy for an individual to spend almost all of their non-work, non-sleep time in their car.
Commuting is, in just about every sense, terrible for us. The more time people spend driving each day, the less happy they are with their life in general. This unhappiness even extends to the partners of people with long commutes, who also experience a decline in well-being. Commuters see their health suffer due to long periods of inactivity and the stress of being stuck in traffic. It’s hard to find the time and energy for things like exercise or seeing friends if you’re always on the road. Gas and car-related expenses can eat up the savings from living outside of the city. That’s not to mention the environmental toll. Commuting is generally awful for mental health, which Montgomery illustrates:
A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.
So why do we make this mistake? Drawing on the work of psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Montgomery explains that it’s a matter of us thinking we’ll get used to commuting (an experience) and won’t get used to the nicer living environment (a thing.)
The opposite is true. While a bigger garden and spare bedroom soon cease to be novel, every day’s commute is a little bit different, meaning we can never get quite used to it. There is a direct linear downwards relationship between commute time and life satisfaction, but there’s no linear upwards correlation between house size and life satisfaction. As Montgomery says, “The problem is, we consistently make decisions that suggest we are not so good at distinguishing between ephemeral and lasting pleasures. We keep getting it wrong.”
Happy City teems with insights about the link between the design of where we live and our quality of life. In particular, it explores how cities are often shaped by mistaken ideas about what brings us happiness. We maximize our chances at happiness when we prioritize our experience of life instead of acquiring things to fill it with.