cohousing community in denmark; photo by seier + seier via flickr creative commons
I recently watched the documentary Happy, an hour-long 2011 film that tells happiness stories from around the world. Perspectives from both everyday people in places like swampy Louisiana and Kolkata’s slums, as well as leading experts in positive psychology and happiness get at the essence of what really makes people happy. The messages are familiar (money doesn’t equal happiness), but the way it’s told is beautiful and human and real.
I was pretty sleepy when I watched it, so i admittedly drifted in and out of portions of the film. But one segment really stuck with me. It was about the world’s happiest country at the time (SPOILER ALERT): Denmark*. This wouldn’t have been the first country I would have guessed, but when I heard it, it made sense. Great public programs, excellent education, low unemployment, a strong middle class, and strong societal feelings of trust and safety all contribute to high happiness, as measured by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Happy Planet Index (HPI). But the story that stuck with me most was told by a woman living in a “cohousing” arrangement.
As wikipedia describes it, a cohousing community is “an intentional community composed of private homes supplemented by shared facilities.” Residents share in everyday activities such as cooking, dining, child care, gardening, and governance. Basically, it’s like college/retirement homes, but everyone has their own full house and the community is more varied and multi-generational. The cohousing movement began in Denmark in 1964 when an architect brought together a group of friends to discuss possibilities for a more supportive living environment. Cohousing is now a well-established housing option in Denmark, and it continues to grow around the world.
The woman interviewed in Happy about her cohousing arrangement was pretty convincing (she jolted me out of near-REM sleep). She cooks just a few times a month…her children have built in playmates…she can run out to the grocery story to get milk anytime because there is someone around to watch her kids…she has grown-up friends to eat dinner with every night…she has more amenities/facilities than she could ever have living on her own. In short, she has community — something we know from research has a strong positive impact on our overall well-being.
I love love love the idea of cohousing. Yes, maybe because it’s just an idea for me now and I’m not packing up our stuff in a Penske quite yet, but maybe because it’s something we as a society actually need. People don’t consistently live near their parents and siblings anymore. Housing is insanely expensive in some places. Neighborhood schools aren’t always a given, reducing the natural community that they bring. Finding good childcare is time-consuming and stressful. And people are overall maxed out. Life really does take a village. And I’m not talking about a clothing optional, Big Love kind of village…just a normal, hip, cool, interesting one full of varied and curious and compassionate people.
So if I could design my own community, here’s what it might look like…
- Mixed ages — elderly people, families, 20-somethings…united by a common commitment to community
- Shared meals — maybe as a large community, maybe in smaller sub-communities
- Guest housing — for family members and friends from out of town
- Big, beautiful garden — manageable with lots of waterers…
- Swimming pool — of course
- Outdoor showers — because I love them
- Art room — for kids and grown ups
- Ample space in each single home — privacy would be even more important in a cohousing situation
What do you think? Does this idea make you want to learn/explore more or buy a single family compound on 20 acres where you wouldn’t have to interact with anyone unless you made a big effort? Do you know anyone who lives in a cohousing community and loves or loathes it?
*Note: Denmark is no longer the world’s happiest country, according to the Happy Planet Index (HPI). Costa Rica took its place in 2012.