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Will a bigger home make you happier? Maybe, but design can help too

New research offers a slight defense for the McMansion. But in reality, it’s more complicated than that.

Will a bigger home make you happier? Maybe, but design can help too
[Source Image: Ivengo/iStock]

In a tiny house, people fight over the bathroom, and nobody has any privacy. But in a giant house, it can feel like you never see your own family. So which is the better option?

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It’s a question asked by a team of researchers from Brigham Young University, who, as part of a larger study on families, examined the impact of house size on home life. Their findings were published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. After running a series of questionnaires with 164 families, getting a portrait of both their home’s size and footprint, along with a peek into family dynamics, they came to a perhaps unpopular conclusion.

If you have the resources for it, having a larger home, where people don’t feel crowded, is probably better for your family than living in a smaller home. But there are many caveats to this, first and foremost that “How big is big enough?” is an extremely personal question.

“We know that there is an ‘optimal stimulation’ set point for everyone, and that varies from person to person. This is the defining point where if crossed, people start to feel that crowded feeling and experience negative family outcomes,” writes lead researcher and BYU adjunct professor Carly Thornock by email. In other words, if a home is too small, the everyday stresses of life can feel amplified. Instead of growing closer by proximity, people may develop the habit of tuning one another out by necessity.

Meanwhile, when a family has more perceived space, they can communicate better emotionally, and they’re more accepting of one another. It reminds me of the old saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

[Source Image: Ivengo/iStock]

There are limits, however. “If a space is too big, I anticipate that people would start to feel more separate from one another, though these effects of feeling of separation on family in our study weren’t as prominent as those when families felt crowded,” writes Thornock, who also cautions us not to fall into the trap of treating space as a status symbol. “Generally, unless you have 8 kids, you don’t need 8 bedrooms.”

One red flag the researchers noticed about personal space was surprisingly gendered. Girls appeared to benefit from more space. For young boys, though, distance from others in the home was correlated with lower levels of general emotions, personal expression, and acceptance.

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In any case, there is a silver lining in the study. Just how much space someone has appears to be largely about perception rather than mere square footage. “The most exciting thing to me is that it’s all about how people perceive their environment… so if people feel crowded in say, a tiny home, then they are more likely to interact negatively with one another. Yet, no matter the square footage, if someone perceives their space positively, they can negate those negative effects. Kinda cool,” writes Thornock.

In particular, you can take steps to make your home feel bigger to your family. Thornock suggests that you may want to rethink that completely open floor plan that you see on HGTV—or at minimum, ensure everyone in your family has their own private space to retreat to when they wish. Don’t be afraid to Marie-Kondo-away the clutter. And then, you can use simple tricks, such as mirrors and lots of light, to make your space appear larger, even if, shhh, it technically isn’t.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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