The Economics of Happiness

30 03 2013

Two and a half years ago, we bought this huge, historic, drafty, energy-sucking house. We have managed to renovate it into a sustainable showcase, filled with innovative technologies and materials that reduce our impact on the planet.raised bed front yard1

Two years ago we were meeting with folks involved in co-operative housing in Austin, Texas, exploring the options for creating a similar kind of community in our state, only to decide that we didn’t want to relinquish control over our home to others. Joint ownership and decision making are, of course, critical parts of a co-op. We were left to find another solution.austin coop

Instead of abandoning this idea of urban communal living (sans hippie communes), we built it on our terms, and have been able to create a model which is financially viable for us. We list rooms online for short term guests to come and stay with our family. Many have been local folks in transition, or travelers from other states exploring Michigan, but we’ve also had guests from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and now Germany! We particularly love these international experiences, because they give us a chance to learn more about other countries, and possibly connections, if we ever get there.

It’s been almost two years since I first signed us up for, and we have had dozens upon dozens of visitors who have stayed with us. Some stay for just a couple nights- summer weekend road trippers- while others arrange to stay for a month- med students on rotation or university internships. We love it! At first, however, our friends and family thought we were weird for inviting perfect strangers to come and stay in our home. We explained that we get a chance to review their profile, and we can refuse someone if we don’t think it’s a good fit. Likewise, our profile is extremely vivid, painting a realistic picture of our eco-friendly, vegetarian, lesbian-owned household, so people know what they are getting when they sign up, and often seek us out because of who we are.


AirBnB has recently become far more known, after they volunteered their website to connect Hurricane victims with free host families in New York last fall. It’s basically a company that has a nice user interface for families like us to list a spare room in their home for a fee much lower than a hotel, and an environment much more personal, like a home stay. Because we LOVE our community, we also really enjoy getting to walk new visitors all over town, showing them our favorite spots along the way. We pay a small percentage as a fee for each booking, and so does the guest. In exchange, the website handles the money transactions online, and provides us with insurance in case something gets broken, or if there’s ever a bad fit. It’s easier than emailing back and forth with someone on craigslist, with far fewer weirdos. (And if we do get a weirdo booking with us, we can always leave a review to warn the next potential hosts of their ‘idiosyncrasies’!)

Early on in this experience, even before our international adventures, we were already enjoying a variety of cultures through local housemates. One of our first longer term guests was Asha, a recent U of M grad who was looking to change jobs and move to California. She is Indian-American, first generation, with parents on the West side of the state who love to send her home with huge portions of homemade Indian food after every visit. Esha was originally going to stay with us for one month, but decided to stay on for a total of three months. Although she worked as an attorney, she was still young, and struggled to find her place at work. As experienced women in a still-male-dominated world, Bethany and I both shared our own stories and lessons learned about how to be assertive to achieve goals. Asha seemed to really treasure this mentorship, and I think that we helped her during a difficult time in her career. She was a very sweet person, and good at communicating her needs in an unemotional (nearly robotic) way.

world-happiness-newsWe learned a lot from each other, and a lot about expectations. No matter how interested we were in each other’s lives, we seldom followed through with grandiose plans to actually DO something together in our spare time. But, that’s the really cool thing about living with someone. Those moments that you don’t really think about as counting towards anything- “doing nothing”- are actually invaluable treasures. Something as simple as being in the same room can make you feel far more connected to someone than going out to dinner together.

I have found that this translates into relationships as well. It’s not just the big things, but it’s the little things that I cherish.  Bethany & I have a © Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporationtradition, where we never go to bed without brushing our teeth together. It’s not 100%, but we try. If I am exhausted and go to sleep first, I usually will set out her toothbrush and stripe it with some good ole Tom’s peppermint paste so that it’s waiting there for her. And if I forget, and start brushing my teeth first without putting toothpaste on hers, she jokingly cries, “What, are you mad at me?” It’s because there is so much value to be found in doing a seemingly meaningless task WITH someone. As we stand there, side by side, brushing. Our mouths are occupied, but our eyes do all the talking. We smile and laugh, and get to spend just a few minutes looking at one another without distraction. It’s a tiny piece of zen, and important to our marriage.

All these little thing about living with others, like getting to make a pot of tea in the evening and share a cup with my wife, and a guest, just makes me feel like a person. We are, after all, truly social beings, and this is one of the most important criteria for happiness. When you watch “The Economics of Happiness,” or read the reports about how some of the darkest, coldest places in Europe can still have the happiest citizens, it’s because of their social capital. (By the way, this is the next book I plan to read, after some great recommendations at a recent conference on sustainable transportation: “Nudge”). Money REALLY can’t buy you happiness, but living with other people can.economics of happinessmap world happiness



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