houseIt is a purchase that many adults dream about and save for – often for years, if not decades. For many, it is the biggest purchase they will ever make. It is a key component of the American dream – a home of your own.

But after investing so many wishes and dreams and fantasies into homeownership (not to even mention all of the money), do we get repaid in happiness for our status as homeowners?

An article in the New York Times suggests that the answer is no.

There are lots of possible reasons. One is that we typically derive more happiness from experiences than from things. Homeownership can actually rob you of some of your favorite experiences, if, for instance, you are spending all of your time on repairs or if you just don’t have any money left over after paying the mortgage to go out with your friends.

Another relevant psychological mechanism is “hedonic adaptation.” Lots of things that we wish for can make us happy at first, but then we adapt to them, and end up no happier than we were before we had them. Think of your upgrades to a bigger TV or some fancier gadget. After a while, do you even notice what may have delighted you when you first got those new toys?

Apparently that happens with houses, too. In a study mentioned in the Times article (but without a specific citation – I like to read the original research articles), people who moved to a new home were happier with their home the first few years but they were not any more satisfied, overall, with their lives.

What matters more than whether you own or rent is what your living situation allows you to do with your time. Do you get to spend more time hiking than commuting? More time with the people whose company you enjoy than with repair people? That, they say, is what happiness is all about.

Homeownership is not evenly distributed by marital status or household types. Married-couple families, for example, are more likely to be homeowners than are people living on their own.

For a decade before I moved to California, I owned a home. Once I moved out West, though, I could only afford a place I loved if I rented. So far, it has worked out wonderfully. In the back of my mind, though, I know that the place is not my own. The owner could decide at any moment that he’d like to sell. I don’t think that concern makes a dent in my happiness on a day-to-day basis. It would not show up in the typical happiness study. Still, the worry is there, buried several layers beneath the other more joyful things I think about more often. I suppose happiness researchers would say that homeownership comes with worries of its own, such as the unexpected bills for all the things that go wrong. That’s true, too.

House image available from Shutterstock.