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2/6/09

Robert H. Frank, Big Houses, & Happiness

Robert H. Frank, Big Houses, & Happiness

All our stuff. We have bunches of it. Stuff here, stuff there, stuff everywhere. We need a place to put all that stuff, don't we? So buy a big house to put it all in. Suppose you do want to buy a house, and suppose its square feet have an impact on public policy. Public policy and big houses?, you ask. What's that have to do with anything? Think about this, then. Here are some interesting scenarios, each with implications for the environment and public happiness:

In Daedalus, (Vol. 133, Issue 2, spring 2004) Robert H. Frank (author of Luxury Fever) casts an interesting light on the subject. He offers two scenarios, one with a people living in 4000 square foot homes, totally isolated from another people living in 3000 square foot homes. He calls each Society A and Society B. Because separated from one another, each people is equally satisfied and does not question the square-footage norm. Further, the larger houses do not provide advantage in terms of longevity or health.

He observes that "it takes real resources to build larger houses." The difference between 3000 and 4000 square feet implies a difference in resources. His question: "Are there alternative ways of spending these resources that could have produced lasting gains in human welfare?"

Society B (smaller home) residents use saved resources for the commonweal. They spend the money and material to promote specific changes in their living conditions. ". . . cost savings from building smaller houses are sufficient to fund not only the construction of high-speed public transit, but also to make the added flexibility of the automobile available on an as-needed basis." (Frank) In short, they don't need a car but can drive it if they want to. They simply don't have one thousand additional feet of floor space.

Because all income goes toward stuff, Society A residents have no excess resources for improvement of their situation. They cannot fund pubic transit and must depend on the automobile. Their cars continue to cause traffic gridlock and high stress levels. Although nicer to live in, is the larger home more valuable in the context of longer commute times, traffic jams, and traffic noise?

These are factors demonstrably correlated to reduction in happiness. When a new, noisy highway was opened, people living next it were studied. Shortly after its opening, 21 percent said the noise did not bother them; a year later, the figure dropped to 16 percent. Prolonged exposure to noise elevates blood pressure lastingly. Auto commuters are subject to various noises. Things are out of their control. They cannot predict bottlenecks or accidents. They get cut off by drivers even more tense. "A large scientific study documents a multitude of stress symptoms" from daily commuting. The stress is known "to suppress immune function and shorten longevity." (Frank) This is aside from the risk of accidents or the inhalation of carcinogenic exhaust fumes.

Frank points out that a rational person would choose Society B in order to promote his own happiness. Rational. Research in cognitive psychology demonstrates people are anything but that. Daedalus in PDF. Here is a very negative opinion of Frank.

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