When I was growing up, my friend's mother always drove a Mercedes. I admired that car and owning a Mercedes became part of my definition of success. If I could drive a car with that iconic tri-star symbol, I'd have made something of myself.
It was a big day when I bought my first Mercedes. While I loved driving that car, my favorite part was looking at that symbol on the hood. It made me feel good and feel like I had made it every time I looked at it.
That's the same feeling that fuels a lot of purchases we make in our lives. We want to feel successful. That's the same feeling I believe people are searching for when they buy larger and larger homes, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.
The average size of new homes being built in the U.S. is 2,679 square feet, up 1,000 square feet in the past 40 years. Yet the average size of our households is decreasing, from 3.01 persons per household in 1973 to a record low of 2.54 in 2013. So, the average amount of living space per person has almost doubled during that period, according to a blog on the American Enterprise Institute website.
The explanation for this phenomenon to me seems to be that these larger homes are inextricably tied to our society's definition of success. The bigger our house, the more successful we must be. We have a picture in our minds that successful people live in big homes, and we feel good about ourselves when we drive up the driveway of our new mansion. Yes, we often want to let the world know we are successful, but more importantly, we want to remind ourselves.
I took a 13-week sabbatical this summer, during which my wife and I had the opportunity to live in several places, including three weeks in Paris. We lived in a 500-square-foot apartment. To give you an idea of how small it was, one gallon of paint could cover every wall in it.
Yet that space worked for us, and the life we wanted to live in Paris. We had a small bedroom with a comfortable queen-size bed with great curtains that kept out the morning light so we could sleep in. We had a small family room with a comfortable couch that allowed me to read in the morning without disturbing Heidi, and we had a small dining table where we ate breakfast, and I journaled every morning.
During the time we spent in Paris, it occurred to me that the space you live in should empower the life you want to live.
And yet that 5,000-, 7,000- or 10,000-square-foot "Dream House" often does exactly the opposite. We have to spend our time, energy and money to furnish and maintain the home, leaving us less time for activities that we enjoy and may be more meaningful to us. We have less time to spend with friends and loved ones.
We may even feel lonelier as we roam around our large house looking at rooms we hardly ever use. We can spend a night at home with our family, and hardly ever see each other as we occupy different parts of the house. All so we can feel successful.
Measuring our success by the size of our house or the symbol on our car is really a distortion of what success means. What is really important are the relationships we build, making a difference, and doing what we love to the extent we still can.
If we redefined success to more closely reflect our values, what matters most to us, would we still want the big house? Or would we select the smaller space that allows us more time and energy to devote to relationships and creating our best life?
In many cases, a smaller home that preserves the space we need to live our lives and eliminates the space we never use would serve us better.
What kind of life do you want to be living? Does the home you live in empower you to do so or distract you from living your best life?
David Geller is the author of Wealth & Happiness: Using Your Wealth to Create a Better Life. He is the CEO of Atlanta-based GV Financial Advisors and is available for professional speaking engagements.