This column will change your life

If you're the kind of person who prides yourself on your impeccable taste (well, you're reading this, aren't you?), then you may be tempted to sneer at some of the real-life characters in House Lust, a book by the US journalist Daniel McGinn about what he calls "America's obsession" with ever more extravagant homes. His interviewees have mortgaged themselves half to death for McMansions with "cathedral ceilings", "super-expanded family rooms" and enormous garages. ("I could never go back to not having two dishwashers," says one woman.) Of course, when you live, like me, in a city where a flat the size of a box of Weetabix costs £50m, it's comforting to mock people with more space. The problem is, we may be more similar to them than we think.

The buyers of mega-homes, says McGinn, are seduced by what marketers call the "maximum-use imperative": the idea that the things we buy ought to be capable of performing services we'll rarely ask of them: the 100-person party, or 10 people staying for Christmas. "It's a phenomenon that helps explain why people like owning SUVs," he writes. "Most SUV owners probably tow a boat, carry eight passengers or use four-wheel drive... only a couple of times a year (if ever), but even if we use these capabilities infrequently, we still feel better knowing we can." For that feeling, about a future possibility, mansion owners and SUV drivers endure suffering in the present, spending more on mortgages, fuel, etcetera, way beyond the cost of, say, renting a 4x4 for a holiday or putting those guests up in a hotel.

The truth is that most of us are like this, if not necessarily with material goods: we'll suffer now for the feeling that we're keeping options open, and to avoid the sense of loss that comes with closing doors. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely shows, in his book Predictably Irrational, how this applies to everything from commitment phobia in relationships (we'll choose angst today to preserve possibility tomorrow) to maintaining friendships we've outgrown (say, to avoid potential loneliness). In his research, students were offered the chance to win money by clicking three doors on a screen; each dispensed a different amount of cash per click, and each person had only 100 clicks. So it made sense to find the highest-paying door, and keep clicking. But when the other doors started shrinking and vanishing, people raced to click them, to keep them on screen - even though it meant they lost money. Try it at predictablyirrational.com.

The "tragedy", as Ariely puts it, is that in struggling to keep doors open, we let important ones close: "We may work more hours at our jobs, for instance" - because it may benefit us later - "without realising the childhood of our sons and daughters is slipping away". He counsels closing less important doors whenever possible: resigning from pointless committees, or sometimes allowing ourselves to lose touch with friends. Your best option may be to reduce your options.

oliver.burkeman@guardian.co.uk

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