Buying Happiness: Property, Acquisition, and Subjective Well-Being
Acquiring property is a central part of the modern American vision of the good life. The assumption that accruing more land or chattels will make us better off is so central to the contemporary preoccupation with acquisition that it typically goes without saying. Yet an increasing body of evidence from psychologists and economists who study hedonics—the science of happiness—yields the surprising conclusion that getting and having property does not actually increase our subjective well-being. In fact, it might even decrease it. While scholars have integrated the insights of hedonics into other areas of law, no scholarship has yet done so with respect to property.
This Article maps this novel territory in three steps. In Part I, it summarizes recent findings on the highly conflicted effect of the acquisition of both land and chattels on subjective well-being. In Part II, it explores the implications of these findings for four leading normative theories of property law, showing that in different ways the evidence produced by happiness studies undermines the core empirical propositions on which these theories rest. Part II also explores the potential of subjective well-being as a framework for assessing the optimal regulation of ownership. Finally, Part III investigates how looking at property through the lens of happiness can help us see this ancient body of law in a new light. Evidence from happiness studies casts doubt on some policies (state promotion of homeownership), while suggesting the appeal of others (tax incentives and disincentives designed to nudge acquisition in the direction of greater subjective well-being). Happiness analysis also suggests promising new insights about related aspects of property, including law’s attempts to prevent dispossession, the proper allocation of public versus private land, and the nascent sharing economy. This Article concludes by showing why these findings actually tell an optimistic, if nonobvious, story about the nature and future of property.