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Sneak Peek at Charles Montgomery’s New Book Happy City

Happy City

Image: courtesy Charles Montgomery

happiness equation

A basic translation of Rayo and Becker’s evolutionary happiness function goes like this: happiness = your success minus your expectations = your perceived social status. Image: courtesy Luis Rayo

Tomorrow, in conjunction with Participatory City: 100 Urban Trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab, the Guggenheim will host the launch of journalist, author, and former New York Lab Team member Charles Montgomery’s forthcoming book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. In it, he investigates the fascinating and integral link between the science of happiness and urban form. During his time at the Lab, Charles explored this link further through psychological urban experiments like Testing, Testing!, Green City, Gray City, Good City, and Love Night, among others, and the launch will follow suit with experiments and games designed to test the ways the urban environment makes or breaks human happiness, and can nudge us toward happier lives. Tomorrow’s event is sold out, but here’s a peek at the book, which hits the shelves November 12 across North America.

Adapted excerpt from Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery (2013, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux [US], Doubleday [Canada] and Penguin/Alan Lane [UK])

There is a particularly vexing problem on the road to the happier city, and it travels with every one of us. The emerging consensus among psychologists and behavioral economists is that, as individuals and as a species, humans just aren’t that well equipped to make decisions that maximize our happiness. We make predictable mistakes when deciding where and how to live, and the architects, planners, and builders who create the landscapes that help shape our decisions are prone to some of the very same mistakes. I became aware of this at an especially inconvenient moment.

Like many people born in the 1960s, I could not imagine spending my adult life in some generic apartment. I wanted a house, and my own piece of Frank Lloyd Wright’s good ground. I did not base this wish on any particular utilitarian calculation. I was just certain I would be happier once I had achieved it. So in 2006, when the average price of a detached home in Metro Vancouver hit $520,000, I bought a share of an old friend’s house, a two-story fixer-upper on the city’s working-class East Side.

The house was perfectly habitable, but it did not resemble the ones pictured in the home and garden magazines that my co-owner, Keri, collected. So we signed papers on a second mortgage in order to raise that creaking frame, strip it down to the studs, and transform the place into the home of our dreams. We figured that nine-foot ceilings, reconditioned fir floors, an open-plan kitchen, two living rooms, an extra story, and a couple of extra bathrooms should do it. Like millions of our fellow middle-classers, we were sure that the extra square-footage would make us happier, despite the quarter-million dollars we had to borrow to get us there.

No sooner had the house been severed from its foundations and propped on story-high columns of railway ties then I was broadsided by the first warning about the psychological trap we had fallen into. This realization arrived by way of Nants Foley, then a realtor in the Californian town of Hollister. Foley had just written an emotional column which appeared in the Hollister Pinnacle warning homebuyers to be wary of the urge to follow their dreams. Foley’s own clients invariably wanted to trade up: they all wanted a bigger house on a bigger yard in a more perfect neighborhood, and Foley helped them get it. But after a few sales cycles, she noticed that those big homes did not seem to be making her clients happier. “Time and again,” she told me when I called her, “I would walk into an absolutely gorgeous home with a beautiful pool that never got used and a game room that was never actually filled with friends, owned by people who were living really unhappy lives.” People’s new homes were so big that they created a whole new layer of housekeeping, and so expensive that they forced their owners to work harder to keep them.

How was it that so many people had made decisions that led them into hardship? Foley found her answer in a treatise by Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker and his colleague Luis Rayo at the University of Chicago. The pair had poured the latest findings in psychology, evolutionary theory, and brain science into an algorithm that describes a trap that the economists believe is endemic to our species. Here it is [see above right].

Dubbed the Evolutionary Happiness Function, the equation explains the psychological process that both fuels our desire for bigger homes and ensures that we will be dissatisfied shortly after moving in. Dissatisfaction, it suggests, is inevitable. Considering my own rapidly expanding home, I called Rayo in a panic.

He explained that the process the equation describes is simple: humans do not perceive the value of things in absolute terms. We never have. Just as our eyes process the color and luminosity of an object relative to its surroundings, the brain constantly adjusts its idea of what we need in order to be happy. It compares what we have now to what we had yesterday and what we might possibly get next. It compares what we have to what everyone else has. Then it recalibrates the distance to a revised finish line. But that finish line moves even when other conditions stay the same, simply because we get used to things. So happiness, in these economists’ particular formulation, is inherently remote. It never stands still.

Framed this way, the happiness function would have served our prehistoric ancestors really well. Hunter-gatherers more oriented to dissatisfaction, those who compulsively looked ahead in order to kill more game or collect more berries than they did yesterday, were more likely to make it through lean times, and thus pass on their genes. In this model, happiness is not a condition at all. It is an urge genes use to get an organism working harder and hoarding more stuff. The human brain has not changed much in the 10,000 years since we began to farm. We have been hard-wired for active dissatisfaction.

“We are still slaves to that evolutionary hunting strategy,” Rayo insisted. “We are always comparing what we have to something else. But we’re not anticipating that no matter what we have, we will always be comparing it to something else. In fact, we’re not even aware that we are doing this. But there’s a difference between what’s natural and what’s good for us.”

Indeed, this trait does not serve the city-dweller well, at least not in rich countries. The desire for marble countertops, stainless steel fixtures, and conspicuous purchases clearly doesn’t boost the likelihood that we will pass on our genes, and these things cannot, on their own, propel us any closer towards the horizon of shifting satisfaction.

Rayo assured me that it would be a matter of months before I started to compare my own renovated home to a new ideal.

Nants Foley handed in her realtor’s lock box and turned to farming in 2009.

I, meanwhile, was left with my expanding house and mortgage, and an uncertain place on the spectrum of shifting aspirations.