There are many warm and fuzzy sayings about owning your own home, not least of which is one by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”
It’s this shelter for daydreaming, undisturbed by demands and jealousies, that makes us yearn for a home of our own.
And so, from the vantage point of the second-story window, I move the curtain aside. I breathe and take in the view, a perspective I could be seeing for the rest of my life. My eye scans the backyard fence separating the house from the neighbour’s yard. I swivel hard, and point. “That house is… is… incredible…”
“Oh yes,” the estate agent says smugly, his eye resting on the neighbour’s gabled roof. “I sold that house last year. You see, back in the day that house was the main residence. This house”, he says with a pause, “the one you are standing in right now, this house was its stables.”
I can’t smell horse hair, but I think I could if I tried hard enough. I wander downstairs, a little crestfallen, out to the garden. The agent shows me the flowerbeds, and indeed, they are a credit to the owner at this time of year. But I’m back gazing at the other house, this time pressed up against the fence, taking in the neighbour’s standstone pillars and arched windows.
On closer inspection, I see a barbed wire fence surrounding the side entrance; laundry hangs limp on a makeshift rope; the gardens are patchy. But why is it in such disarray? To own such a grand house, surely one would wake every day committed to the art of maintaining it?
Just to clarify: the house I’m standing in is, as the brochure says, “A stunning example of Federation, Queen Anne-style architecture.” And “rooms which once accommodated gentleman’s carriage, horses and tack now form part of a stunning and gracious family home.” But life doesn’t exist in isolation; the house stands amidst other houses. And the truth is, the house over the fence is, even in its dishevelled state, significantly better.
This story is certainly not novel. It’s a well-known narrative, summed up in expressions such as “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Or, another, “Keeping up with the Joneses”, which more often refers to neighbours copying each other’s purchases of cars, pools, and driveways. But these quaint expressions do not reveal the underlying cause of what’s going on here. Why can’t we be happy with what we have? Why are we always looking over the fence for what appears to be a better life?
As organisms, writes Daniel Nettle in Happiness: The science behind your smile, we need to seek out things that are best for us. To survive, or even better, to flourish, we must be “constantly scanning the horizon on the lookout for a better environment, a better social network, a better mode of behaviour. And it should always have left a little space of discontent open, just in case something hovers into view which is really special,” he writes. If we didn’t behave like this, argues Nettle, we wouldn’t be very successful organisms. If we had remained in the petrie dish boasting about our naturally-superior DNA, we’d have been wiped out by a more ambitious organism. It could be said, therefore, that our capacity for unhappiness is our greatest gift - the motivational force that’s seen us conquer just about every other organism on the planet. Here’s one for unhappiness. Or not.
Into this gap, between what we want and what we actually have, enters consumerism with its dazzling line-up of products. “Peddlers of nostalgia, spiritual systems, drugs, and all kinds of consumer goods,” writes Nettle, will slip into this space promising to narrow the gap “between our present contentment and possible super contentment”. Stuff that appeals to our need to signal to others our biological fitness - status, beauty, health, or wealth - will tempt us more than stuff that’s simply useful for us.
Economist Richard Easterlin asked a cross-section of the US public in 1978 what it meant to be live the ‘good life’. “What do you want out of life?” he beseeched. He handed them a card listing 24 big-ticket items, such as a car, television, holidays abroad, swimming pool, and vacation homes. “When you think of the good life, the life you’d like to have, which of the items on this list, if any, are part of that good life as far as you personally are concerned?” Respondents were then asked to tick off items on the list that they already owned. The same survey was then conducted 16 years later, in 1994, and what was most telling was that, while respondents indeed owned more items 16 years later (3.1 items compared to 1.7 items in 1978), they also desired more items on the list (5.6 items required for the good life as opposed to 4.4 items in 1978). In other words, over 16 years, the gap between what people had and what they so desperately desired remained steady at two and half items. They were two and half items short - eternally, so it appears.
What this finding suggests is that this gap, this small margin of yearning, this nagging sense of inadequacy, remains no matter where you’re stationed in life. While few of us yearn for a Rembrandt etching on our walls, it only becomes an ‘item’ on the list for those with the means to purchase it. While the person on an average salary dreams of a holiday home, the billionaire dreams of a public gallery that bears his name, complete with casino and hotel.
So, it seems, no matter how hard we run in an effort to hurdle that elusive ‘stuff gap’, we never actually close it. It’s just not in our DNA.
I often think about the mansion surrounded by washing and wire. I think of the owners huddled inside the opulent drawing room surrounded by gold leaf wallpaper debating whether or not they’ll open a brewery, go sailing, or buy a little hideaway somewhere in Indonesia. All the while, the roses wilt, the dirt patches grow, and cracks in the arched windows widen.
And the stuff gap remains.