Why people are choosing to live in smaller spaces and are happier for it

When most people picture their dream home it’s hard to go past the six bedroom McMansion with seven bathrooms, home cinema and an acre of benchspace in the kitchen.

Nicole Alvarez in the studio apartment she lived in for two years. Picture: intentionallysmall.com

While it’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of wanting that bigger place, with the spare bedroom, bigger yard, study or airy dining area, an increasing number of people are waking up to the fact that instead of enjoying the extra space, having more room often means you just buy more stuff to fill it up.

And this clutter is not making people happier.

Founder of LifeEdited, Graham Hill explored this idea during a 2011 TED talk called Less stuff, more happiness.

Hill had a tiny 39sqm apartment in New York. To give you an idea of its size, the floorspace just exceeded the size of two disabled parking spots.

In Australia, his apartment is so small it would not meet the minimum 50sqm size requirement for a one bedroom flat in Sydney.

But in a video tour Hill demonstrates how his apartment had enough room to host 10 people at a sit down dinner, to use as a home office and could even be converted to sleep an extra two people in a separate “room”.

6 rooms into 1: morphing apartment packs 102m2 into 39m2

While not everyone has the resources to convert an apartment to this level of sophistication, many people have been inspired to try living in a smaller space. Not only that, they are choosing this lifestyle over living in a bigger house.

Sydney business owner Sarah O’Neill lives in an even smaller flat than Hill’s, her studio apartment is just 29sqm.

She made the decision to downsize about five years ago, prompted by the clearing of the family home and wanting to buy her first property.

Like many ‘downsizers’, she wanted to live a more sustainable and less stressful life.

“There is a very definite and growing trend toward living in smaller spaces,” O’Neill told news.com.au, adding that this could be seen in the number of blogs, books and even a film, Tiny, that have emerged in recent years.

O’Neill only expected to live in her apartment for a couple of years but almost five years later she is still happy and comfortable. She said some of the advantages included spending less money on electricity, maintenance and cleaning as well as having less debt.

Her low key home also gave her the financial freedom to start her own business, a shop called Small Spaces in Redfern, which she opened after realising that Ikea was the only retailer catering to the specific needs of people in this growing market.

Over the years she has noticed that many of her customers also downsized for practical reasons, to save money and time, or to reduce their responsibilities or environmental footprint.

But after trying it, many chose to maintain the lifestyle, “for the pleasure and simplicity it adds to their lives”.

For an increasing number of people, living in a smaller space is a deliberate decision.


Even though it may be a frightening thought to some, the simplicity seems to come from having less possessions.

“A common misconception about living in a small space is that it will be difficult to give up the space and material items, when in fact it is quite liberating,” another small space enthusiast, Nicole Alvarez toldnews.com.au.

“I get so many emails from retirees that are downsizing and are always so much happier after the transition. You are making the intentional decision to improve your lifestyle, how could you not be happier?”

Alvarez is an architectural designer and the founder of the blog intentionallysmall.com

She said one of the joys of small living was the attention to detail. When space is precious, people are more careful about what objects they keep, which can lead, ironically, to less clutter.

“I’m fascinated by how a well-designed space can improve happiness and support a lifestyle,” Alvarez said.

Thought goes into how items are stored or displayed, and how the apartment itself is arranged to provide the most functionality. Possessions that make the cut are usually cherished items.


House cleaner and home organiser Bethany Clayton said while it could be difficult and time-consuming to keep everything organised and neat, having clutter around could impact people’s mental and emotional energy.

“I think that it is ultimately better to have to look at – and assess – the things you own on a regular basis than to shove it all away in cabinets and closets only to realise one day that you are stuck in a huge house packed with junk you haven’t thought about in years,” the founder of Happy Home Solutions in the US told news.com.au.

“It seems to me that the overwhelming amount of clutter and disorganisation takes its toll on mental and emotional energy. I much prefer knowing everything I own, where it is and how it serves me. Otherwise, I get rid of it.”
When space is in short supply people take more care choosing what they keep. Picture: Nicole Alvarez, intentionallysmall.com
Clayton said she had also seen first hand why downsizing had become so popular.

“People are getting tired of huge houses that aren’t particularly well-built and cost a fortune in mortgage payments and maintenance. As modern families are getting bigger houses, they are also falling deeper into debt and less satisfied with life.”

There is also growing evidence that the modern focus on materialism may be impacting people’s wellbeing.

In a talk in Brisbane this week, a prominent Britain-based mental health commentator Gregor Henderson noted the alarming rise in people being diagnosed with depression and anxiety around the world. While economic growth has increased, people’s satisfaction and happiness was flat at best.

“You begin to recognise that there may be a link between the way our modern world is structured and the elements of emotional and psychological distress we are seeing,” he said.

“If we keep putting such a high value on economic product, this is based around the need to produce and consume. This leads to mat­erialism, consumerism and individualism, and these are mostly short-term benefits.

“In these circumstances, ­people are going to question the big picture if they are not happy. People are already asking why they seem to be doing all the things expected of them but still something is missing.”
Bethany Clayton’s home. Picture: Nicole Alvarez, intentionallysmall.com
That’s not to say small living does not have its drawbacks. Common obstacles are having enough storage and being able to host guests.

O’Neill said it was also tough sometimes to let go of things and this could take time.

“Most importantly (you should) stay clear about the benefits … if there are possessions you are not ready to part with when you first move put them in storage and give yourself time to understand why you need to keep them,” she said.

“This is a very personal philosophical journey that will be different for everyone. It took me two years to get rid of a small storage unit I used for this purpose.”

But the increasing availability of quality multi-functional furniture is helping to get around the limitations and having less possessions does not mean you can’t be surrounded by beautiful things.

Here’s Mount Lawley’s best value 2 bedroom home.  It’s not huge, but it is a perfect canvas for all of your great ideas. And from just $319,000, it’s hard to find a better buy right now!

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