Happiness and Home Ownership

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It is an interesting coincidence that as the American housing market continues its nose dive, three prominent American chroniclers of suburban gloom have been in the news.

John Updike died recently; John Cheever is the subject of a new, major biography; and Richard Yates, the least known of the three, got the Mendes-DiCaprio-Winslet treatment in the film version of his novel Revolutionary Road.

While the three writers have their clear differences, they all had an abiding interest in the trappings of postwar suburban life. One aspect of this life was the family home, which served as a metaphor for stability and the subsequent anxiety that stability breeds.

Through many novels and short stories, these writers convey an insight that the economist Grace Wong Bucchianeri at the Wharton School of Business has recently been quantifying: Home ownership does not equal happiness. "Overall, I find little evidence that homeowners are happier by any of the following definitions: life satisfaction, overall mood, overall feeling, general moment-to-moment emotions (i.e., affect) and affect at home. The average homeowner, however, consistently derives more pain (but no more joy) from their house and home."

So why did Americans go on a housing shopping spree over the past decade? Did we not read enough Cheever and Updike? Perhaps. The American dream of home ownership, buttressed by mortgage tax relief and an entire TV network (HGTV) devoted to home ownership and home improvement, is as vital and strong as ever. And in the past decade, that dream was helped along by sketchy mortgage practices we've now all heard about.

But I wonder if this most recent push for home ownership was partly about joy and stability, but also about the happiness that comes with knowing that the value of your home was increasing.

If this is indeed the case, there are some pretty unhappy homeowners out there.

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