By happenstance, I read two things online the other day that linked up in my psyche as needing the other for completion, though I’d read them on different sites, at different times and in very different contexts. First, I read an article about a January 2009 survey by Real Simple Magazine, in which 2,600 men and women responded to this question: What would make you happier?

Interestingly enough, real estate ranked way up there. For women, "a big house" was No. 3, behind a luxury trip and a clean house. (To my mind, it seems like women want a big, clean house to return to when their luxury trip is over, but that could just be me!) For men, a big house ranked No. 1 as the most frequently expressed "thing" that would make them happier. Romance, sex, cars, and smarts all ranked after big, honkin’ real estate.

Later that same day, I read an article on, discussing the neuroscientific evidence about what real estate traits actually do and do not cause a home’s occupants to be happy. In an exploration of the new field of "evidence-based design," the article argued that "neither tons of space nor high-end furnishings are key to your home satisfaction. Much more important are things that may seem minor but that pack a big emotional wallop."

Quoting the vice president of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, the piece went on to articulate a number of real estate attributes that have been proven to make residents happier, including:

  • maximal full-spectrum light during the daytime;
  • arranging a room’s color and ceiling height to match the room’s purpose;
  • positioning the main seating in a room with its back to a wall and a good window view.

The article emphasized arranging furnishings and having window seating to allow for various feel-good groupings and gatherings of people, which is how home can further happiness by facilitating interpersonal relationships. With ample shelving and storage to minimize clutter and put away electronics, your real estate can contribute to a happy lifestyle that maximizes order and minimizes overwhelm. High ceilings churn up creative juices.

Smart installation of window coverings allow for unobstructed window views when curtains are drawn, allowing the sunshine to naturally boost your mood — for free! Focusing several different light sources on the dining table mimics the bonfire-as-bonding-place instincts from our cave-folk days, attracting your family to those communal dinners it’s so hard to get everyone around the table for. …CONTINUED

Similarly, a kitchen island with barstools on one side and a cooktop on the other facilitates family bonding during meal preparation, evidence-based home designers stated throughout the article.

While all of these tips were smart and interesting, having read the two articles in a fairly short time period, I was struck by the observation that there’s a big disconnect between what we think a home must have to make us happy (e.g., square feet) and what characteristics of a home actually do make us happy (e.g., light, color and positioning of the items within).

The CNNMoney article called out yet another misconception about how homes make us happy:

For instance, homeowners think that their outdoor space has a big impact on their happiness, but it turns out that’s not true. Indoor spaces have much more impact — particularly the living room or family room, the kitchen, and bedrooms.

For smart homeowners, it makes sense to learn about these counterintuitive home hacks, if you will, before embarking on a costly remodel that might not make your experience of home improve as expected. Maybe it makes sense to try maximizing your light and rearranging things before you go adding a home theater or pimping out your spa bathroom.

For buyers and sellers, though, the implications are numerous. Sellers can look to stage their homes in conjunction with the items we humans apparently — mistakenly — believe will make us happier. That is, staging the outdoor living and landscaping areas, and using the age-old stagers’ tricks of minimal, small-scaled furniture and no personal clutter in the home during showings. Buyers, however, should look for the items that will actually fuel their happiness, like:

  • numerous and/or big windows positioned well for furnishing to maximize window views;
  • home positioning for maximum sunlight (Need a compass during your house hunt? There are a bunch of apps for that.);
  • and shelving, storage, and kitchen arrangements consistent with the neuroscientific evidence as to what makes us happier — or at least ample space and a sensible setup for you to create these arrangements cost-effectively after move-in.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site,


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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