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How Homes Work

What homes do and how they fail.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
12 min read
How Homes Work

Some of the purposes of home are obvious. One tends to sleep at home (or maybe "home" just is where you mostly sleep). Homes are also commonly used as storage and feeding sites.

But I've been thinking extensively about the subtler purposes of home because the home I inhabit is substantially a failure.

(the physical home, not the metonymous home. Our family is solid.)

Homes have the potential to help one to display and shape identity. Homes can also help you to manage your mood.

As such, homes can fail for being incongruous with one's identity (whether accidentally or necessarily).

Homes can also fail in virtue of their impotence at helping occupants to regulate emotional states.

Sure, you can eat and sleep just about anywhere. But can you realize and project your actual or best self in your home? Do you manage your mood through your home - or is your home managing you?

If something is not quite right about your home, I hope this provides a framework for evaluating the problem and considering resolutions.

Some personal background

Could you live in a 1-bedroom apartment with another adult, 2 kids, and 2 dogs? I did that for almost a year.

In 2018, we upgraded to a small 2-bedroom apartment and things seemed great... but I was pregnant. Upon baby 3's birth, our family home got stuffed beyond its reasonable capacity once again.

I used to want to write about how small-space living can be done without going full minimalist. I started writing that blog post about a year ago. But, #realtalk, the moment for that piece has long since passed me by.

The truth is that these living arrangements are driving me crazy. Crazy, crazy, CRAZY. Our general status quo at home makes me furious, nauseated, and withdrawn in turns.

In an expensive city like New York, people like us are poised to make dramatic tradeoffs between space and commuting time. If you haven't gotten rich enough to afford what you consider to be a civilized amount of home by the time your kids come along, then you move to the suburbs (and sometimes even before then)

We didn't make the regular suburban exodus. We hunkered down further into our bohemian way of life as an identity-based matter. Unfortunately, though we understood the benefits of our small conveniently-located apartment in advance, we didn't understand the costs.

In addition to having no physical breathing room, I have little emotional breathing room and little free time. My first daughter just turned 4, so I haven't had so much as a corner to myself in fully 4 years. The whole situation has gotten really out of hand.

I don't want to sound like a whiner. It's not like this apartment is cheap. But I am desperate for ways to cope with this ultra-stressful situation and so I did what I usually do - I picked up a book.

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You


Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You is Dr. Sam Gosling's 2008 work on the complex relationship between personality and personal spaces. I came across this book because Sam Gosling was cited in a mainstream media article about "The Health Risks of Small Apartments." There, Gosling points out that

"When we think about micro-living, we have a tendency to focus on functional things, like is there enough room for the fridge... But an apartment has to fill other psychological needs as well, such as self-expression and relaxation, that might not be as easily met in a highly cramped space."

This may sound a little cheesy and self-indulgent. Certainly everyone with an oversized McMansion (and an oversized mortgage) could learn to self-express and relax in a more modest abode?

But, having come from the other side of this issue, I can verify that small-scale living presents intense challenges towards making a home work in important ways.

Dr. Gosling devotes most of Snoop to explaining the true connections between people's personalities and their surroundings. Can you tell if someone is open, neurotic, and so on from her spaces? To some extent, yes.

This stuff is plenty interesting, but it wasn't as useful for me - after all, I'm not trying to divine my own personality. Instead, I was drawn to Gosling's tripartite framework for understanding what there is to observe about spaces in the first place.

Identity and Mood: the two higher purposes of home

Humans being as they are, home never could have been just a place for attending to bodily needs. Our desires for self-expression, status, and meaning ensured from the first that human homes would go way, way beyond the basics. Indeed, the choice to maintain only a small and basic home is itself an act of dramatic self-expression and identity-formation.

As Gosling explains in Snoop, observing the spaces of others reveals much about their "identity claims" - who the occupants are and who they want to be. Identity claims are made via symbols like "posters, awards, photos, trinkets, and other mementos."

To whom does the space's occupant make these claims? Sometimes the identity claims are directed at others who come around; for this purpose the items on display must bear shared meanings.

But other identity claims may be made towards oneself. Self-directed identity claims can be executed via items with personal or secret meanings. Think: a mundane object that belonged to someone special in the past, or a mood board with quotes from an obscure but meaningful source.

These self- and other-directed identity claims do not neatly line up, so asymmetries are particularly informative. In someone's office, for instance, pictures may be displayed such that only the owner (or only the visitors) can see them. These by-design identity claim asymmetries verify that people are always and everywhere considering how they portray themselves, with complex personal purposes.

People also use their spaces as tools to regulate their feelings. Learning to wrangle and/or simply cope with emotions is the task of a lifetime. As every teenager with carefully-chosen mood music quickly learns, it makes sense to marshal all available resources in this emotional task. Those with minimalist sensibilities learn that, while external tranquility can't guarantee inner tranquility, it sure doesn't hurt.

In Snoop, Gosling also considers "behavioral residue" at length - by which he means the states of affairs created by occupants in the course of their ordinary activities, the byproducts of life commonly found in a space. (This is the less intentional third category of home analysis, alongside identity and emotion).

Signaling vs. authenticity

What role does "signaling" play in our environments? Do people want to look good, or do they want to be known for who they really are?

To make a long story short… yes.

A reductive view of human motivation could hold that it's signaling all the way down. But, even if this is in some narrow sense correct, we can still readily observe behavior that's more easily explained in terms of a human drive for authenticity. Other drives still hold instrumentally valuable, explanatory power.

"Self-verification theory" refers to the idea that "people want to be known and understood by others according to their firmly held beliefs and feelings about themselves." Self-verification theory comports with plenty of evidence, both behavioral and observational.

The ground-level benefit of a positive self-conception is simply that it's positive. Where "positive" is used to mean "desirable," this is true by definition.

But there's a lesser-noticed, high-level benefit of a positive self-view: having a positive self-view frees you from the cognitive dissonance embedded within attempting to prove to others that you're awesome - while knowing all the while that you suck.

The tension between a desire to signal and a desire for authenticity delivers us to personal equilibria. In part, these equilibria are manifested in physical spaces that we control in such a way to make ourselves seem sufficiently good but also sufficiently real.

(What counts as "sufficient" is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps some people have higher tolerances for negative social appraisal or phoniness).

What's wrong with a too-small home? : Identity Problems

Now I'm ready to flesh out what's wrong with a too-small home, in accordance with the basic ideas provided by Gosling in The Atlantic and in Snoop.

A small home is likely to be able to hold all of the objects you need, and many of those you want. You can sleep in a very small space, and you can eat there.

But it is difficult to make aspirational identity claims with a small space, or even merely true ones. The intentional display of decorative objects is crowded out by the unintentional display of functional objects. As one writer describes it:

"The most striking feature of our small lives is the unavoidable, domineering presence of the plastic laundry hamper originally bought from Target in 2007. Embarrassing, ordinary objects like the hamper are empowered in small spaces; they become tyrants. In a larger home, this perfectly functional item might recede quietly into a closet or laundry room."

The small-space occupant faces a few choices:

  1. Turn all items into identity claims by going full minimalist - but this is only a solution if you're actually a minimalist.
  2. Turn all items into identity claims by going full cluttered - but this is only a solution if you actually love your clutter - clutter stresses most people and distances them from their homes.
  3. Try to give up on making identity claims with the space - but just because you've stopped attempting to make the identity claims doesn't mean other people will stop attempting to infer them - or even that you will.

If you are deeply wedded to the idea of a small home or an actual minimalist by choice, then the small home itself makes an enormous, weighty identity claim. But other people's motives and desired are more mixed.

So for most of us, we shoot ourselves right in the foot by attempting to look either good or authentic in a small space - let alone both! Cleanliness and organization become more difficult, and items that would otherwise reveal identity recede into the busy-ness of the scene.

Other people still expect that you are putting your best-but-also-real-self forward, while instead the occupant's cognitive dissonance grows along with the entropy.

Small Homes: Homefeel Problems

This isn't the worst of the problem, though. Small homes don't just make people feel bad for wreaking havoc on identity claims.

Small homes also make people feel bad because it's harder to arrange a small home in a strategy way for the purpose of emotional regulation. As size of a home decreases, the chances plummet that an occupant can store desired objects there while simultaneously managing her emotions with the space.

After all, what emotions do people want? Typically, people want to feel calm, refreshed, and/or cozy at home. One benefit of working from home is supposed to be that you can choose your own environment and mood - whereas offices (cough open plan cough) tend to feel chaotic.

What are the physical correlates of these desired homefeels? Calm spaces might be orderly and clean, refreshing spaces are easy to inhabit and use for other purposes (like resting, sleeping, recreation), cozy spaces are plush and inviting to the body.

To make your home calm, then, you could keep surfaces clean and clear, and tuck unused items out of sight. To make a space refreshing, keep it bright and open. To make it cozy, add texture and throw blankets and create dedicated spaces to get comfortable.

But overall the quickest way to achieve these homefeels is to have separate spaces within your home for different purposes, like emotional zones. The living room is made cozy, the bathroom is made refreshing - maybe your kitchen is inviting if you eat there, otherwise more utilitarian.

In a very small home, spaces must be multi-functional - or you have to give up on doing some things at home at all (as by working at a coworking space and eating all your meals out). Multifunctional spaces tend to impart one homefeel at best, otherwise they're simply emotionally incoherent.

Your cozy living room makes a poor workspace, for which you'd want it to promote alertness. That battered couch has become eating, working, and relaxation ground zero. Your tiny cluttered bathroom full of everyone's essential items is not going to feel like a tranquil spa. Your tiny kitchen can barely contain the functional cooking items, let alone a proper dining table. It's likely to feel neither especially utilitarian for cooking nor suitable for entertaining even the people who live there, let alone others.

In a small home, mood tends to devolve to the lowest common denominator: multi-purpose non-zones that achieve none of their homefeel purposes well.

Small Homes: Behavioral Residue

Last but not least, so-called "behavioral residue" looms too large in a small home. That day's trash, dirty dishes, a few empty cardboard boxes, laundry waiting to be folded: one or several of these can instantly absorb a sizable proportion of the space and catch the eye.

Behavioral residue contributes to the identity claim and emotional regulation problems of a small home, and creates logistical problems of its own. It is impossible to cook something in a small home without smelling it at length, for instance. Out-of-place smells day in, out-of-place smells day out.

In sum, the problems of small living are not simply organizational problems, as I mistakenly assumed. When people end up in spaces that are too small for them (whatever "too small" turns out to mean), they are unable to manifest identity in space and they are unable to leverage the mood-regulating potential of home.

Small homes therefore create psychological crises, with spiritual and energetic components.

If you're going to settle down and give up nomadism, your home must speak to your human parts - all of them.

There's no such thing as a neutral home. If your home isn't helping you build identity and regulate your emotions, then it's hurting you in these ways.

What's wrong with a too-large home?

At this point, I think I would feel totally refreshed by having to deal with a too-large home. But they can certainly present problems of their own.

Large homes, so I hear, are prone to cause some kinds of emotional misregulation. Empty rooms feel bad, so people feel compelled to fill them in identity-consonant ways (but that can be costly, financially and in terms of effort/time). Empty rooms in the homes of "empty nesters" or unhappily single adults invite a persistent sense of loneliness above and beyond that which is unavoidable.

Although large home occupants do not face the inability to create different functional zones of the home for different purposes, an excessively-zoned home has issues too: a lack of coherence and maybe coziness, plus built-in discouragement to socialize with the other occupants.

Occupant-Home Mismatch

There are, then, a few cases on either end of the home spectrum where homes are inherently unsuitable for most people: homes that are way too small or too large, way too noisy or too quiet, way too urban or rural, etc.

But most of these problems come from a mismatch between the home and its occupants, taking into consideration their actual and aspirational identities, their actual and desired moods, and the behavioral residue they're likely to generate.

In other words: home problems are in the eye, brain, and heart of the beholder.

As long as a home is not a complete non-starter for some occupant or set of occupants, the questions become ordinary ones of trading off:

Is more space the better way to regulate your mood, or a shorter commute?

Which hobbies must be pursued at home, and which can be pursued in public spaces?

My Predicament, Revisited

I am now able to redescribe my family's problem more clearly:

We're basically living in a minimum viable home - except it's not so viable.

My husband and I are not "better homes and garden" types. We don't much care for decorative objects, interior design, and the like. So we sort of figured that, as long as we could place the objects we want to use into the apartment and give everyone a place to sleep, it would basically be ok. But we were wrong.

Even if you don't engage in identity claims and emotional regulation explicitly in your home, it will happen by default.

And you might not like how it goes.

Our apartment screams that we are sloppy, out-of-control people. However, this is only a little bit true. I want our apartment to project that we are relaxed bohemians, that we value accumulating books over accumulating "decor," that our professional and creative and family existences are alive and well. I want it to feel lived-in, not all used up.

Yet, despite the fact that everything else is going really well for our family, despite my best efforts and general "adulting" competence, our home feels like the endless jumbled family road trip motel stay from hell. At every turn this apartment is making identity and emotional matters worse for me, not better.

Adding injury to insult, each day I face the constant frustration of dealing with our family's disproportionately supersized behavioral residue.

My kids smear yogurt on the bookshelves that stand way too close to their dining/play area. I can't fit all of our groceries into the beautiful, streamlined fridge that's more appropriate for the DINKs in our building. A regular "kitchen"-sized trash can is made for a kitchen unto itself, not a compact kitchen built into one wall of a living area. But if that trash can were any smaller, we'd have to empty it 3 times per day or step over the bags.

Our small home instantiates neither form nor function. It places a bottleneck on how well I can engage in parenting, work, recreation, everything.

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Home as a Tool: Keep Your Identity Small

As Paul Graham once famously encouraged, "keep your identity small."

He was talking about politics and religion mostly, but the implications of this guideline are vast. After all, it is not usually possible to think clearly about things that have been absorbed into one's identity - too much is at stake, and the "reasoning" becomes too highly motivated.

If you do really want to think clearly about something, you have to find a way to disincorporate it from your identity. I thought that countercultural small-space dwelling was part of my identity. So it's been extra painful to realize that's not quite true.

Don't be like me! Think of your home as one limited but valuable tool in the toolbox of life. Securing identity and regulating emotional life are ongoing processes. Your home can help in some ways, but it can hurt in others.

You are not essentially a small apartment person, or a McMansion person. Instead you are person who likes quiet, or order, or the great outdoors, or parties.

Don't let the identity and mood potentials of home sneak up on you. Take them by the reins.

Your home is not you, but it may constrain who you can be.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.