Building living spaces that make us happy.
If you went to college, there’s a good chance that you remember it as the happiest time of your life.
Why is college so special? There are a lot of reasons: first, you don’t have a boss breathing down your neck, and you don’t have the intense social pressures of the corporate world to worry about.
Plus, you get to live on a picture-perfect campus, surrounded by your friends. And you get to choose what to study, meaning you’re more likely to be doing work that’s meaningful to you.
When I graduated from college, many of my friends told me they didn’t want to leave school. They were happy here, they said. They didn’t want to go out in the real world. They may have been onto something: a recent survey said that only 38% of Americans say they’re happy. And even pre-pandemic, only 48% of Americans said they were happy.
Why does college make people happy?
There are a few different reasons why college students might be happier than the average adult, but in my opinion, the pretty campus and close-knit community is a game-changer.
Research has shown that people’s living environment can profoundly affect their mood. Living in a poor neighborhood, for instance, has been shown to make people less happy, less hopeful, and less healthy, even controlling for other factors.
In contrast, college students are (usually) surrounded by a pretty campus, with green grass and charming old buildings.
And they’re a lot closer to their friends. Dorm-style living sounds uncomfortable, at first — who wants to share a bathroom with 15 other kids? But once you get used to it, it’s really nice to be around other people.
This fits in with how humans evolved to live. Before the Agricultural Revolution, humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups of between 50 and 150 people, and they generally stuck pretty close together.
Living in small tribes, people could get to know one another on a deep, intimate level, work together, depend on each other for favors, and hang out with each other. It worked sort of like an extended family. It’s possible that our brains are wired to be more satisfied when we’re around such a family.
How we live today.
In most parts of the developed world today, and especially in the US, we live more or less the opposite of how hunter-gatherers lived.
Instead of bringing ourselves closer to the people around us and creating these types of extended families, we do just the opposite. Today, we ourselves as much as we can: people live with their immediate families, and only their immediate families.
Plus, we’re obsessed with having as much space as possible. Celebrities buy giant mansions, and people see the size of their home as a status symbol.
But is that really making us happier? Is having more square feet to play around with, and fewer people to share it with, improving your quality of life?
Building living spaces in the 21st century.
Recently, more and more people have realized that our living spaces today aren’t designed for maximum happiness — and some have tried their hand at making something better.
One example is Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork. Today Neumann is widely disgraced as a fraud and a con man for his manipulative accounting, which made WeWork look better on paper than it deserved to.
But the man also had incredible talents. Neumann grew up on a commune in Israel, where he lived in a more hunter-gatherer style. And when he came to America, he realized that our society wasn’t set up to optimally make people happy. “The way people live today is all wrong,” he says.
“Community, being surrounded by a group of like-minded individuals, being part of something bigger than yourself, inspires people to work harder, and have more fun doing it,” said Neumann in a 2017 interview.
In one interview, he sat down and immediately started telling the interviewer that the interview space wasn’t laid out well. “The center of the room’s energy is over there,” said Neumann. “But you’re not using that space at all.”
That’s why WeWork — as well as WeLive, Neumann’s take on apartment-style living — actually had less square footage per person than the average office or apartment. Plus, they included more public space, where people would bump into each other.
But people liked being in closer quarters. And although WeWork was overhyped because of Neumann’s accounting trickery, it’s still a viable company, because people are willing to pay for Neumann’s vision.
Similarly, “hacker houses,” houses where lots of young entrepreneurs live together, are incredibly successful — many have incredibly long waitlists.
Why are people happier in more intimate spaces?
Because it’s easier to make friends in close-knit spaces.
If you live near someone, you’ll interact with them a lot — which gives you a chance to get to know them over time.
Human relationships take time to develop: people don’t instantly become best friends. And they can’t be developed artificially: they must be spontaneous, because it’s weird to force people together on purpose. If you knew someone wanted to be your friend, that would seem weird, right?
That makes it really difficult for people to make friends in 21st century America. When we live in private spaces, isolated from one another, and we don’t have a lot of spontaneous friendly interaction, it’s really difficult to grow close with people.
But if people are just around each other, then they’ll naturally become closer to one another. That’s why most people have lots of friends in college, and fewer friends later in life.
Could we design living spaces to help people make better friends, and be happier?
We probably can!
One idea: instead of living in single-family homes, families could live in multi-family neighborhoods, designed to maximize and incentivize random social encounters.
An experimental suburban developer, for instance, could build a neighborhood with just a single kitchen and dining area, a park, a TV room, and other public amenities. While people’s private residences would be stripped to the bare minimum: just bedrooms, closets, and perhaps a living room.
Or, companies could offer their employees dorm-style housing, with lots of opportunity for people to mingle spontaneously. (This may be an especially good idea for companies that depend on employee creativity, like Google.)
Testing living spaces for maximum happiness.
Today, it’s possible to 3D-print an entire house in 24 hours.
That’s incredible for many reasons, and there are tons of ways that will benefit humanity. But one of the more subtle ways 3D-printed buildings can improve the world is that people can now actually test different types of living spaces.
It’d be pretty easy to run an experiment: buy a plot of land, and build different types of living spaces on that plot. Then, recruit participants to live in your research community, and measure their happiness levels every now and then. That’ll tell you if there’s any link between specific types of living spaces and happiness levels.
Hi! My name’s Theo, and every Monday I publish an article like this one about something unintuitive and provocative.
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