Authors have written so much about human happiness that bookstores can barely keep up with even the most popular offerings. Entire textbooks have been devoted to the topic and there are academic journals that publish nothing but happiness research. Yet one important piece of the puzzle of human happiness is almost entirely missing from all of these writings—consideration of our physical space. The places we live and the spaces we create have a lot to do with our contentment, happiness, and emotional well-being.
When I set out to learn more about people’s lives for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century (link is external), I went beyond the ordinary research techniques of just asking people to fill out questionnaires on their own or in a lab. I traveled around the country and asked people to let me into their homes, show me around their favorite spaces, and tell me the stories of their lives and what I call their “lifespaces”—the places, spaces, and people who are important to them.
The Place Where You Live, and the Space Just Outside It
When I asked dozens and dozens of people to show me their favorite space in the place where they lived, every one of them did so with delight. Some had several favorite places. For others, their spaces extended beyond the insides of their homes, to other places that filled their souls.
As someone trained in psychology, I especially appreciated their emotional and psychological explanations of what made their favorite places special.
Lauren, who was in the middle generation of a three-generational, musically talented household, enjoyed the music room. With its grand piano, stacks of sheet music, comfortable furniture, and dozens of plants, the room welcomes and soothes those who enter it. It is a great gathering place.
Another favorite place of Lauren’s could hardly be more different—her bathroom. It is small and private and hers alone. Lauren cherishes her family time, and has lots of friends too, but she adds, “I always welcome a quiet spell.” Her bathroom, where she can settle into “a nice, relaxing, hot bath,” is “the place I look forward to escaping every day, where nobody can get to me.”
Over the past quarter-century, Maria Hall opened her home to 21 adolescents and adults in need of a place to stay for a while. Each room in her house has its own distinct character, such as the crafts room she calls her “woman cave,” the memorabilia-filled office she calls her “Jimmy Carter room,” an impressively-equipped music room, an elegant sitting room with Asian décor, and a rustic dining room. “There’s something warm and wonderful about every room,” Maria says. “I like the freedom of being able to come down here [to the dining room] and work on a paper for a while, or to sit in the Jimmy Carter room.”
Maria has been single for a while, but when she was married, her husband realized she needed her space. In the back of the house was a shed, and, she says, “For many years, that was where I really lived.” Looking back even farther, when Maria was in college, she also craved a place for solitude: “There was a little stream that ran by one of the buildings there. It was called ‘the Prayer Room.’ I used to stay out there for hours. No one knew where I was.”
Anja Woltman and Tricia Hoffman live on opposite ends of a duplex. Anja, a very spiritual person, has turned a small room in her house into a colorful meditation space. Her very favorite place, though, is her backyard, a sanctuary with gardens, trees, flowers, a hammock, a birdbath, and a hot tub.
Beyond Your Own Home
The significance of physical space to your emotional well-being is not limited to the spaces in and just outside of the dwelling where you live. The spaces beyond matter, too.
Little by little, architects, social planners, designers, and other innovators are recognizing the interpersonal and emotional significance of physical designs. Cohousing communities (link is external) are inspiring examples. They grow with the explicit purpose of fostering real community and meaningful relationships, while also allowing for ample helpings of privacy and solitude. Physical design is integral to their success. Typically, private dwellings sit around an open, green space, with a common house accessible to all. Community members see each other regularly, with no planning needed, in the gardens and paths, and in the dining room and other shared spaces of the common house. The fronts of the private dwellings face the green spaces; people can sit on their front porches and talk to the people who wander by or keep their eyes on the kids playing. The backs of the homes are more private.
As the tiny home movement grows in popularity, and as more cities experiment with micro-units, professionals face the challenge of finding ways to make small spaces feel comfortable rather than cramped. To do so, they look within the little dwellings as well as beyond them. “Apodment” buildings, for example, usually include shared spaces for socializing, such as workout rooms and meeting places, as well as rooftop gardens and barbecue grills and tables.
Several of the city-dwellers I interviewed for How We Live Now (link is external) described their important spaces in the same way. “The city is my living room,” they said. They walk out the door and find shops and restaurants and easy access to cultural and sporting events.
Make a Place in Your Life for Space
If you are not settled in the place where you live and you plan to move in the future, look for a physical space that will be good for you emotionally. And if you aren’t going anywhere, think again about the place you live now. Physically, is it good for you? If it is not, what can you do to make it better?