Friday, December 21

Bigger and Bigger Houses

Anti-sprawl folks like to bring up all of the governmental policies that have underwritten the suburban experience in the United States: single-use zoning, the federal interstate act, the G.I. bill, real estate tax structure, and so on. Then there are also the market forces that push in this direction: mass production of development, cheap oil, risk-adverse financing. But at some point we have to come to grips with another simple fact: we Americans have chosen it.

Even in an age when the limits of the earth are becoming obvious, the average size of houses in the United States has still grown remarkably. We not only like our houses big, but we like them spread out onto large parcels of land. In a nutshell, this is the American dream. Obviously, we do this because we believe it will improve our life and the lives of our families in some way. But is this true?

The Canadian magazine the Walrus explores this question in an excellent article entitled, "We want more square footage! Why following the urge to buy big might not make you happy." The writer starts with the premise that the urge to "keep up with the Joneses" could be hard-wired into us from a time when basic survival depended on the constant search for more. Using your neighbors' success as a barometer was a handy way to get yourself motivated. Now, at least in affluent societies, it has become somewhat of an evolutionary appendage, no longer functioning to our benefit. Next, the article runs through a number of studies that analyze the personal consequences of our big houses, all concluding that they do not make us any happier. Honestly, I take any study that purports to scientifically measure "happiness" with a grain of salt, but the underlying principles seem to be right on target. When it comes to where to live, we are a "species programed to make the wrong decisions."

Medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux beat them to the punch by about a thousand years.

"Do we not see people every day, endowed with vast estates, who keep on joining field to field, dreaming of wider boundaries for their lands? Those who dwell in palaces are ever adding house to house, continually building up and tearing down, remodeling and changing. Men in high places are driven by insatiable ambition to clutch at still greater prizes. And nowhere is there any final satisfaction, because nothing there can be defined as absolutely the best or highest. But it is natural that nothing should content a man’s desires but the very best, as he reckons it. Is it not, then, mad folly always to be craving for things which can never quiet our longings, much less satisfy them?"

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