What do you hope your next home might be like? If you’re a Londoner you’re probably sick of moving and just want a bit of stability for a while. But dream with me here. In an ideal world, what would be some of the characteristics of your next home, or the place you settle in? A bit bigger, maybe? Space to park outside? Even – luxury of luxuries – a driveway, or a bit of garden?
It is notable that as we increase in wealth, we increase the size of our homes and, when we’re able, their distance from one another. From student Halls of Residence to a shared flat, to your own flat, to a semi-detached house … all the way up to a country mansion in acres of its own land … every step gives us more space to ourselves, and more distance from our smelly, noisy, annoying neighbours.
To a certain point this seems obviously desirable. Slums and overcrowded tenements tend to increase the risk of ill health and are generally unpleasant places to be. While not all of us aspire to live in a palace surrounded only by servants, for most of us a home of our own, with a bit of outdoor space, seems a reasonable dream. Especially as we start to have kids. Then of course they need a bedroom each, and if we ever want to work from home, we’ll need a study, and what about a guest room? And so the list of needs gets longer, and the pressure to earn more, work longer hours and spend longer commuting in order to have it all builds.
Do you ever start to wonder if the things you are pursuing in order to be happier are actually working against the possibility of you ever finding happiness?
Each step up comes with a cost. There’s the financial one, of course. But we save and borrow and invest and figure out a way to make it work. But there’s another cost, too, and one that’s not so easily budgeted for. It’s the relational cost.
Think back to your student days: if you needed to borrow a tin of beans or a shoulder to cry on one was never far away. You might have the same in a shared flat, but not when you ‘progress’ to living on your own. And that nice little house in the suburbs you’ve been dreaming of – all those driveways and fences and gates put more and more space between you and the social networks you used to rely on.
In fact, even within a family a larger home, offering each individual more ‘personal space’, actually works against the possibility of us finding happiness. America has, as ever, supersized the issue, and, like looking through a microscope, enlarging it helps us to see the problem more clearly, as this article in The Atlantic points out:
“The big house represents the atomizing of the American family,” a historian of landscape development told NPR for a story on gargantuan American homes back in 2006. “Each person not only has his or her own television—each person has his or her own bathroom … This way, the family members rarely have to interact.” It’s comfortable, in a way, but maybe also lonely.
Doesn’t that describe our culture? We may be more comfortable than ever before, but we are also more lonely. The further we get from one another physically, the further we get from the social ties that add colour, flavour and security to life. The things we are pursuing are, paradoxically, the things that are undermining our chance of finding happiness.
One of the great tragedies of our age is that we think happiness lies in self-fulfilment, in meeting our own needs and wants and desires. Yet time and again we reach the things we have been pursuing and find them empty and unfulfilling. For me as a Christian, there is a rich seam of ancient wisdom I can draw on that shows me why this is the case. It tells me that life is not all about me and the fulfillment of my desires. It teaches me that putting aside my needs to serve others can actually bring me more satisfaction and joy.
One of the most radical, world-changing things the newly-formed band of Christ-followers did in the first century was to overturn all the barriers of race, class and status and practice radical hospitality. People who were once, at best, strangers and, at worst, actual enemies were now welcomed as equals and as friends. They were generous in their sharing of everything – money, possessions, time and even personal space, not because of any political ideology but out of love. And they found that as they gave away, they received much more in return.
I’m an introvert, and I need regular doses of alone time to recharge my batteries, but I also believe that this model, of giving up that which I hold dear in order to bless, encourage and love others is the path to greater joy and freedom. So I choose to open my home every week and invite a group of friends and strangers around to share a meal and talk together about what we are learning from the Bible. It costs me time and money and requires sharing my space, but that community and the friendships we are building together gives back to me far more than an evening alone with a good book ever could. As I share of my resources and of myself not just to ‘do good works’ but to truly build community with others and to pursue the ancient ways of wisdom, I’m finding that the things I once thought were so important pale into insignificance.
It’s only when we stop seeking our own fulfilment that we find it in the most unexpected places. The happiness paradox works both ways.