On Stigma and Happiness

I’m just going to say right off the bat that what I’m about to write probably has more to do with what goes on inside my own brain than it does with “reality.” It’s just that I read this post from The Minimalist Mom the other day (which is based on this book by Laura Vanderkam, which I haven’t actually read YET) and it, coupled with some other things that have been on my mind lately, triggered this avalanche of thought that I wanted to get down somewhere.

The post basically outlines a premise that Vanderkam purports in her book – that (quoting the post, not the book)Β  “we get more out of small frequent luxuries than we do out of larger one time purchases.” Rachel then goes on to note that the biggest items that Americans typically spend money on are our houses and our cars. From the post: “I use cars and homes as examples because the other shocking statistic in this book is that most people spend around 50% of their after tax income on the two.”

It got me thinking – why do people spend the most on those two things? I think a part of it is that those two areas are very large parts of our lives and contribute greatly to our comfort and happiness in many ways. There are comments in the post saying as much. One person loves to cook, so she considers a kitchen remodel as important to her happiness. Another person wanted a yard to see trees, so having a house was important to her. Totally understandable.

However, I think if we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of it has to do with those two items being the two that other people see the most. Where we live and what we drive tend to be very clear indications of our net worth (or at least we perceive them as such – another amazing book, The Millionaire Next Door, debunks this mentality as not belonging to the upper echelon, necessarily, but more to those who belong in the upper middle class who aspire to be perceived as wealthy, but I digress). Downsizing to a smaller house in a less expensive neighborhood or to a more economical vehicle (or even to just one vehicle, which Noah and I did for a few years) is seen as having a larger impact not only on our happiness, but on our status.

If we follow that train of thought, it means that people are hesitant to present a less impressive face to the world even if doing so would allow them to spend money on things that would have a much greater impact on their actual enjoyment of life.

I know this isn’t a completely revolutionary idea, but it really struck me because here we are, living in a bus. You would think that we had lost all that sense of “a home as a status symbol” type of mentality, but it’s still there and I battle with it.

When it comes up that we live in a bus I make sure to elaborate on what a cool, unique bus it is – “oh yeah, it’s a 1970 International double-decker conversion.” I feel a lot better if I can pull up pictures to show people all the work we’ve done to it and I make sure to tell them as quickly as possible that it’s just, you know, while we build A HOUSE. I mention that we’re blogging about the whole experience, which makes it even cooler (right?!).

Living in a bus temporarily for a purpose is a whole lot more socially acceptable than just living in a bus because, frankly, not living in a permanent structure is often associated with poverty.

I think that’s my biggest problem with living in the bus. It’s not the lack of space, because honestly, we don’t really miss it, or the fact that it’s not a house. It’s my fear of other peoples’ perceptions. It’s when Lily mentions at school that we have ants and I’m afraid that people are going to think that we’re living in squalor even though we had ants in our rental too (for the record, the ants are only attacking our trash can and go away as soon as we take it outside). God forbid my children ever get lice or something of the sort – people would probably call CPS.

However, stigma aside, living in the bus has not been detrimental to our overall happiness and has increased it in many ways, especially now that the initial move and set-up are done. Our situation directly supports the original premise that both the post and the book proclaim. Now that we’re gardening and things are growing on our fruit trees (including some absolutely incredibly delicious Saturn peaches) I have a whole new appreciation for our land. I am extremely grateful for where we get to live, no matter what the structure is that we’re living in.

It also helps me to put things into perspective: the average size of a newly built US home is larger than any other country in the world. That chart doesn’t even include third world countries, where the space that we’re living in (about 400 square feet) is considered above average.

I guess my ultimate conclusion is that instead of worrying about what people think about our family’s choices or living situation, which decreases my happiness, I should be spending my mental resources on enjoying the lifestyle that we are getting the opportunity to live right now – free of many of the burdens that most others have to deal with.

I do wonder though, if the many people who proclaim “I could never do that!” upon hearing about our current lifestyle are really only being held back by their own fear of the stigma that can sometimes come with it.

What do you think?

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12 thoughts on “On Stigma and Happiness

  1. My husband is getting ready to retire this November. I have suggested that we downsize and buy a house 1/2 the size and price. We now live in a beautiful top of the line home that we had built for us. He is having a hard time because he thinks the smaller less expensive home will somehow mean that he didn’t work hard and have a beautiful expensive home. I told him the less expensive home will mean less taxes and let us travel a little. It will give us more freedom. I think I will eventually get him to agree with me but I’ve learned (it took 56yr) to not worry about what people think.

    1. I totally get that and I think that Noah feels the same way. For him it’s an indication of how hard he works and how well he can take care of his family. I think that that’s the case for many men. In some ways, he cares more about those kinds of things than I do, but I think he’s coming around πŸ™‚

      Also: I think that having less expenses for retirement is SO SMART.

  2. Our dream is to have a small house with lots of LAND…a fixer, even. The unfortunate thing is that we haven’t been able to achieve this goal yet (for a number of reasons). In the mean time, we are living in a rather large house, much larger than I ever wanted, for its large lot. It sometimes embarrasses *me* to tell people where I live, because I never wanted a house like this, and I think it somehow indicates priorities in me that just aren’t real.

    By the way, even this house has ants in the summer. πŸ˜‰

  3. Totally know what you mean! I find myself getting embarrassed that we have a “tent” for a garage and our “laundry room” is the front porch. I make sure to reassure visitors that my husband and I have college degrees, and that this is all temporary … even though I love having the washer, dryer and clothesline outside. I love where we live, but I still struggle with not caring what that means about our “status.” Glad to know I’m not the only one.

  4. I totally get this. Great post. We just had our second child and I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work again, so we made the decision that I would quit my job and we would sell our current home and downsize 1000 sq ft to a smaller home. It’s amazing the comments we have received, such as “how can you raise two kids in a house that small” and ” how can four people live in a house with only one bathroom.” Unfortunately sometimes I find myself pulling up pictures of the house we are buying trying to convince people that it really is cute and not a dump. When all I really need to say is that I would do whatever it takes to be home with my kids and that we are absolutely making the right decision for our family. Things and keeping up with the Jones’s does not buy happiness.

    1. Our rental before moving into the bus was only 900 square feet, had two bedrooms and only one bath, so we’ve never really had a TON of space. I know people with no kids that insist on having two bathrooms. It’s incredible how you don’t mind giving up things or square footage when what you’re getting back is so much more worthwhile.

      Congratulations on finding a way to stay home!

  5. Thank you.
    I needed this today.
    We are a family of 6 in a 4 bedroom house. By some standards, we are “squished”. Then in 3 weeks, we have a family of 4 moving in with us since they are relocating to the area. They will be staying for as long as it takes them to find a home of their own. (Each couple will have a room, then one room for the 3 boys and one for the 3 girls.)
    General consensus is that we are “kind but crazy” to have even offered. But I have a feeling that when they move out again we will wonder what to do with all this space!

  6. What a thoughtful and honest post! I was brought here by your comment on the Minimalist Mom post. I grew up in the US as a child of Indian immigrants, and we did not have much growing up, but I am SURE I would have had much less if my parents raised us in India. I feel that because I was poorer than most of the kids with which I went to school that I had to learn early on how to ignore the pressure of maintaining a certain status. The differences were more evident when I was transferred to a city-wide magnet school for gifted and talented students where most of the students were from more affluent families. My parents also seemed quite oblivious to our socioeconomic status, probably because they considered themselves rich to be able to move to the US when they know so many families still in India. I think that helped me be oblivious as well because neither of them much cared about how we were perceived in terms of financial status. Now I have the most modest house and car out of any of my friends or family, but I have never felt the pressure of status to drive me to settle in a more affluent neighborhood or buy a fancier car even though I could afford it. They probably think I am doing the best that I can afford, and that is fine with me. πŸ™‚

    1. Yes, I think family culture has a lot of influence on our perceptions and as adults I think it is wise to choose friends who share our values, or at the very least, don’t disparage them. It’s fantastic that you learned not to give much weight to “keeping up with the joneses” at such a young age. I’m sure you’ve benefited from that lesson your whole life.

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