How people feel about living in small spaces is more about psychology than square footage – Fast Company

In cities around the world, tiny living spaces are becoming increasingly common. An estimated 200,000 people in Hong Kong live in what are called “coffin homes“—subdivided units so small that a person can’t even fully stretch out their legs.

Such stories are exotic fodder for the British press, but in the U.K., too, tiny living spaces are on the rise. Over the past 20 years, the average private renter in Britain has seen their individual living space decrease from 31 square meters (about 334 square feet) in 1996 to 25 square meters (not quite 270 square feet), as more and more people are forced to reside in shared accommodation.

As advanced economies have become centered around urban growth, housing supply has failed to respond, and the price of land has skyrocketed. Consequently, renters and new homeowners have been forced to occupy ever smaller and more expensive spaces, even as existing homeowners have seen their housing wealth multiply, their living spaces expand, and their property portfolios grow. In the U.K., this has resulted in increased living-space inequality.

Research shows that these trends have significant implications for people’s personal and collective well-being. As I have found, on an individual level, people’s expectations of how much living space they find adequate are not innate. Instead, they are informed by the space they are used to and the spaces of those around them. On a societal level, meanwhile, spatial inequality is both a product of, and further compounds, socioeconomic disadvantage.

Space expectations

There is no universal relationship between size of living space and subjective well-being. Different people and different societies use—and understand—living space in different ways. This can lead to interesting discrepancies when cultures collide.

In a study published in the early 1990s, the ethnographer Ellen J. Pader recorded one Mexican immigrant saying, “I see so many Americans living on their own, and I think how lonely they must be.” Because of this diversity, a small living space will not affect all people to the same degree.

Houses are what economists call positional goods: They determine our social status by effectively exhibiting our wealth and tastes. Even if a person’s living space is large enough to meet their basic needs, they may still feel a stigma (or pride) if it is smaller (or larger) than that of …….


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