Tiny houses may inspire TV shows and countless minimalist fantasies, but that doesn’t mean we’re all rushing to downsize. For most of us, living in close quarters is a sacrifice we make due to income or other circumstances.
Carving out your own space is trickier when there’s less to go around, but some attitude changes and practical living adjustments can help you find the peace you need.
My plan was to rent my own place after graduation. The reality was moving back in with my parents for almost a year, sharing a bedroom with my 13-year-old sister. Positive psychologist Tova Rubin says the disappointment I felt wasn’t all about the boy band poster on the wall. “It’s less about where you’re living and more about your sense of stuckness, that you had to give something up. When you perceive that choice as something that’s forced upon you from the outside, then you feel less safe in the world and see the world as more threatening.” Instead, she says, try to focus on what you can control. Maybe your lease is for a tiny studio apartment instead of a one-bedroom, but you chose this building because it allows pets (for which Fluffy is very grateful.)
A phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation” shows why it’s worth giving less-than-ideal space a chance. “Pretty much whatever happens to us, we’re going to adapt. The extreme example is someone who’s an amputee. Within several months, they go back to a baseline level of happiness,” Rubin says. The same goes for lottery winners. “No matter what happens to you, it’s just going to become life very quickly.”
The average house size has increased by more than 1,000 square feet since 1973. The share of living space per person has also gone up. Apartments are also getting bigger, and U.S. apartments tend to be larger than those in many other countries. This means two things: first, if you’re feeling cramped, it’s worth looking for reasons other than space. A blaring TV that interrupts your sleep can make you feel like you can’t get away, even if you have your own room. Second, your idea of a “normal” living space might be much larger than people in some other countries or from previous generations. It might be harder at first not to grumble that an apartment is too small. Keeping a gratitude journal or meditating on the things you that do make you happy can help you rediscover the positive. Rubin notes that seeing disasters on the news is often a reminder not to take basic securities for granted. “I find right now, actually, more people are feeling scared, and people are a little less happy overall. The more we can do for other people, the better we feel.” Helping those in need cultivates a grateful perspective without making you feel like you’re exploiting other people’s misery.
Finding peace in a small space isn’t only about looking on the bright side. Sometimes a small change in your physical space can make a big difference. An article in Environmental Health Perspectives notes that traffic and common household appliances like dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and hair dryers can be harmful over time. Hanging heavy blackout curtains can muffle some traffic sounds. To reduce indoor noise, discuss quiet hours with roommates. A brief quiet period that you can count on lets you plan to read, meditate, and recharge.
Mismatched expectations about money, overnight guests, and clutter can also make a home feel cramped, Rubin says. Setting house rules can create a more peaceful living situation for everyone. This goes double for figuring out a new adult relationship when moving back in with parents. “Talking about money is important. Have the conversation, even if it means, ‘I can’t pay you anything right now, but once I have income, this is what I plan to do.” When Rubin moved in with family after a divorce, pitching in kept relationships positive. “I was a single mom, and I made breakfast every morning and left it on the table. There are many ways that you can show appreciation.” If you can, mark out a nook that’s yours alone. Even something as simple as declaring your desk off-limits to other people’s clutter can give you some control over your space.
I didn’t expect a positive psychologist to bring up death, but Rubin doesn’t see it as a depressing subject. In fact, she explained, remembering that everything ends can bring new energy into your day. “Bhutan is the happiest country, and they focus on gross national happiness versus GDP. They contemplate their own death five times a day. I’m actually taking it into practice myself. It’s an unbelievably powerful way to take command of your own day,” Rubin says. To be clear, this isn’t a morbid obsession over your funeral. The idea is more like the hypothetical question of what you’d do if you only had a year or a day left. Rubin says she’s quicker to tell family members she loves them, for example. “Live intentionally. That’s the core of positive psychology. It’s easy to build relationships when you’re being intentional.” A tight living space may be a passing stage, or you may always find yourself in a smaller home than you’d dreamed. Your retreat may be an entire room or a tiny corner. Treating your space as one aspect of a much larger life may be the key to feeling like there’s plenty of room for happiness.