Happy Homes, Happy Society? The Contribution of Domestic Life in a Time of Social Changes

Online | 12-13 November 2020

To what extent does the quality of domestic life (Family relationships, environment, technical tools, housing style) influence individual and social happiness, in the context of current changes?

The pressures of modern life on individuals, families and communities are increasingly evident. There are benefits and opportunities, but also the fragmentation of traditional support networks: extended families and active neighborhood and community relationships. New work practices can also disrupt the home/work divide, and the pervasive culture of screen interaction has an impact on our home lives. Data reveal an increasing disconnect between generations and the vulnerability of healthy patterns of stable home and family to changing societal mores and expectations. All of this has a direct impact on the well-being of individuals, their families and their communities. Although this is more apparent in the developed Western nations, it is a global trend that should be dealt with at an international level.

This conference was designed to develop knowledge and deepen understanding of the link between the life and work of the home in creating and sustaining human happiness evidenced by well-functioning individuals contributing to the well-being of the wider society.

Originally, it was to have been the third experts meeting organized by the Home Renaissance Foundation (HRF) with STI financial and academic support, building especially upon the Home in the Digital Age Experts’ Meeting held in London in  2019. But the COVID-19 crisis rendered a physical meeting of the minds impossible.

As necessity is the mother of invention, HRF changed course to design what should become an even richer final project. The conference was reorganized into two stages. In the first, an international and interdisciplinary group of academics presented online video summaries of the chapters they had written to form the core of a published volume (addressing the connections between happiness and activities of the home, housing, interpersonal connections, and social interaction). and in 2021 with paper givers in dialogue and workshops.

The second stage involves the preparation of the final publication. A call for papers resulted in some twenty worthy candidates to round out the book. These will be presented in an online forum in early 2021 in four workshops: 1) Happy dwelling? Perspectives on the world; 2) Values and domestic life; 3) Rediscovering relationships in the context of social changes; 4) Technology and well-being in the home. A relevant scholar will oversee each workshop and respond to the presentations. HRF’s Scientific Committee has appointed an editorial team to select the authors invited to develop their work into additional chapters for the publication.

A webinar will share pre-publication insights, findings and responses.  This will provide an opportunity for a broader discussion of the topic and the specific contributions before the final publication in 2022.

Watch the video summary.

Principal Inquiries

  • How is happiness/well-being linked to activities of the home? (shared responsibility, connectedness, relation-ships…)
  • How do new trends in architecture and planning allow for maximum opportunities for those home activities and connections that lead to greater individual happiness?
  • How do new digital technologies allow for maximum opportunities for those home activities and connections that lead to greater individual happiness?
  • What role does the home play in children’s happiness? Why is this important?
  • What attitudes in the home contribute to the happiness of its members?
  • What is the relationship between poverty, or unstructured families and happiness at home?
  • What is the relationship between happiness in one’s current home and that of one’s parents or previous generations? 
  • How much do the material conditions of the home contribute to well-being (housing, technology, etc.)?
  • How do SMART technologies contribute to (or make difficult) happiness in the home?
  • Which housing schemes/policies best promote happiness/connectedness?
  • What is the relationship between happiness in the home and the community?


María Pia Chirinos - University of Piura, Peru

Stephen Davies - Institute of Economic Affairs

Maria Bakarjieva - University of Calgary

Bridgette Wessels - University of Glasgow

Agnieszka Nogal - University of Warsaw

David Thunder - University of Navarra

Lord Richard Layard - London School of Economics

Paper Abstracts

Lord Layard - London School of Economics. “A Happy Society is the Fruit of Happy and Caring Relationships at Home

As a part of his contribution, Lord Layard highlights the need for policies to support parents and children as these are the key relationships in promoting happiness and well-being in the home for individuals, families and wider society. 

Prof. Maria Pia Chirinos - University of Piura, Peru. “Care, Flourishing, Happiness: the Challenge at Home in Everyday Life” 

The central place of work during the twentieth century, and maybe also the nineteenth, has marked our era as the "civilization of work" or as a "work-centric culture". The thesis that I would like to propose here is that the value of care should be recognized as a property of all human work, and as the key to humanizing a civilization that has made technology and environment into its gods. Only a civilization focused on care can promote human flourishing and, consequently, happiness, and care should be the most significant thing learnt at home. Therefore, home, care and happiness are essentially related, and all these three notions have our innate human vulnerability as their connecting thread. To humanize our civilization means to tackle one of the most dangerous taboos: our fragility.

It is no secret that if this conference about happiness had taken place in 2019, maybe some of the above ideas would have appeared too naïve. The lessons we have learned during this pandemic have helped wake us up from a dream. We are not self-sufficient; we are not as autonomous as we imagine. We need others, and we are needed by others. And the reason is the fact that we are fragile, we are dependent, we fail and even die. From that perspective, the topic of this paper is a little bit easier, but still challenging; not only because personal happiness is always a challenge but also because the topic has become stereotyped. But let us start.

Dr. Stephen Davies - Institute of Economic Affairs. “Happiness and the Structure of the Home

There is much evidence that happy homes make for a happy society. Many factors contribute to either supporting happy and functional homes or undermine them. One of these, which is often overlooked, is the physical layout and design of houses and of the built environment in general (Coleman, 1987. Mehrabian, 1976). The way these are done is shaped by economic pressures of consumer demand and supply constraints but it also has a clear ideological component because things like house design derive from social ideals as to how people should live and the nature of family and the home. In the nineteenth century a strong social ideal emerged in response to the transformations of industrialism, which was reflected in home design. This provoked several critiques. One of these came from radical feminists, who objected to the vision of relations between men and women that was a part of the dominant vision. Their central proposal was to build homes without kitchens or other service rooms, and to communalize housework (Hayden, 1981). These ideas were widespread, and had support from figures in business, while being mirrored by actual developments in housing practice at the time. However, they were submerged by a reassertion of the classic domestic ideal in an amended form, which found expression on left and right in the 1930s and was to dominate policy after 1945. This second age of domesticity, however, has unraveled in the face of policy errors and economic and technological changes, and we are now seeing a resurgence of the idea and practice of the kitchen less home.

Prof. Maria Bakarjieva - University of Calgary. “Home Implosion: Digital Media and the Reinvention of the Private Sphere

What happens to our homes once digital media become deeply and intimately inscribed into their spaces and rhythms? Do activities, relationships and roles in the household remain fundamentally the same, or do significant changes take hold? Sociological theory has considered the private sphere to be represented by home life and family relationships as well as the notions of the private that members of a culture share. Communication research, for its part, has shown how different media have punctured and eroded the already porous boundary delineating the so defined private sphere: from the startling ring of the telephone to the intricate reconfiguration of domestic routines and relationships with the outside world that television brought about. Digital media have carried that erosion further than anyone would have imagined. The honored abode of private life, the home, has been penetrated by gadgets and practices that decimate its introvert and character. At the same time, fragments and instances of private life have profusely populated the public world with the assistance of mobile devices. This paper takes stock of these developments and examines the interplay between structural imperatives and human agency that determines their course and reach. The extended “shelter-in-place” experience precipitated by the Covid-19 quarantine is taken as an occasion to reflect on the cultural significance of the digital implosion of home life and the new powers and vulnerabilities it has brought about.

Prof. Bridgette Wessels - University of Glasgow. “Creating Meaningful Connected Homes: The Relationships and Dynamics of Household-Digital Technology Interactions in Fostering Wellbeing

Changes in household composition and household life (ONS 2019) and the pervasive use of data-driven services is impacting on the characteristics and quality of home life. Remote working, online learning, platform-based consumption, telehealth, streamed entertainment and digitally mediated relationships are increasingly part of home life. These services are accessed via the web, mobile apps, smart devices and sensors, which are all part of, what is termed here, the ‘connected home’. Connected homes are the backbone of a connected UK (BEIS 2019), central to its economy, society and culture. However, connected homes are ad hoc in their configuration and in what they ‘socially shape’: they exert an influence on households and are experienced very differently depending on household culture and practice, housing design and quality, geodemographic factors, life stages, wellbeing and -more recently – public health crises. Understanding how the connected home meets the needs and desires of households, in all their diversity, without reinforcing or increasing inequalities is a major challenge and knowing how people within households want to live with technology is vitally important. This paper addresses the ways in which the increasing use and reliance on digital connectivity and data-driven services is underpinning developments of ‘connected homes’.

‘Feeling at home’ summarizes the multidimensionality of wellbeing. It conveys how material living standards, services, information, security, communication, relationships and companionship create homes (Mallett, 2004, Søraker et al. eds. 2015). The quality of home life and how it supports household members’ wellbeing is relational, within the household but also within the neighborhood, at work, in commerce, and with services (Blunt and Dowling 2006, May and Nordqvist eds. 2019). The home is an economic, social and cultural entity. Its role within work, socialization, care and wellbeing changes, as does its use of domestic spaces. As such, the home’s deepening dependency on data-driven services requires us to understand the domestication of technology, and the complex social shaping role that it has within the home (Hartmann 2020; Williams 2019). This is seen in terms of the home’s: (a) materiality (economic, technological and housing); (b) practices (relationships within households, including interacting with technology and data); (c) and knowledge (social imaginaries of home and technology). To understand how the ways in which household practices are shaping connected homes, the paper discusses formal and informal work in the home, consumption practices in home life, household and kin relationships and art, hobbies and cultural activities in the home within the temporal and spatial dynamics of the home. The paper argues that understanding households is important order to support the development of connected homes that support wellbeing.

Prof. Agnieszka Nogal - University of Warsaw. “The Impact of Domestic Happiness on Public Space"

The thesis of the text is that in liberal political philosophy there are no tools to conceptualize the relation between homes and society. In order to analyze the impact of the home on the public sphere, one must depart from the liberal model of the public sphere and turn towards classical thought and virtue concept. Such a turn will be examined in the text using arguments formulated by Martha Nussbaum and Sibyl Schwarzenbach, allowing one to supplement the specific "lack" of liberalism with the space of the home treated as a space of civic education.

The argument will be divided into three main parts. In the first one, liberalism will be reconstructed and the liberal model of the public sphere will be distinguished. The weaknesses of the liberal model of the public sphere will be indicated, in particular its failure to take into account the influence of homes. Critical arguments against the liberal model of the public sphere will also be presented.

The second part presents the return of classical inspirations, using the example of the contemporary, recognized philosophical and political paradigm put forward by Martha Nussbaum. The author argues that political philosophy should be supplemented with a model of civic education.

In the third part, the classical elements of Sibyl Schwarzenbach's political philosophy will be identified. The author argues that education is connected with care as exercised by the people closest to us. Thus, it should at least partially take place at home and cannot be limited to the influence of the state in the public sphere. 

The conclusion summarizes the arguments that in order to perceive the influence of houses on the public sphere, one has to depart from the one-sided liberal model, which only perceives fully formed equal citizens. We should turn to the classical model, which appeals to paideia, and thus to shaping citizens constantly from an early age. From this perspective, it turns out that homes are essential to public spaces, as they are where not only children but future citizens are brought up. 

Dr. David Thunder - University of Navarra. “The ‘Neighborhood’ as a Pivotal Element of the Infrastructure of a Flourishing Society

The central theme of this conference is the contribution of home and family life to a healthy society. In reality, of course, the relation between the home and the society that hosts it, is not merely a one-way relation, but a complex, dialectical relation. The life of the home obviously conditions the character of members of the home, and their fitness to participate responsibly in social life. But it is also true that the customs, institutions, and mores of small, medium, and large communities condition the life of the home and shape the capacity of parents to make a responsible contribution to society and to prepare their children to do the same. In a healthy society, a well-functioning family and home will have a fruitful, mutually reinforcing relation with healthy and well-functioning communities. In a healthy society, the influence between the home and the communities it is embedded within will form a virtuous circle: healthy homes will produce virtuous, responsible citizens who can build healthy communities; while healthy communities will provide social structures and material and educational resources that support families in their efforts to create healthy and vibrant homes, as well as in their efforts to contribute to the life of society outside the home.

 In this paper, I propose to focus on one specific dimension of this virtuous circle of the home and the society within which it is nested, namely, the role of the neighborhood in preparing individuals to participate responsibly in social life beyond the home. The central hypothesis to be explored is that (a) the neighborhood plays a critical role in introducing family members to the concepts, values, and rituals of social life beyond the home, and (b) the fate of society at all levels greatly depends on how well or poorly the neighborhood performs this socialization process, and (c) the socializing function of neighborhoods may be greatly enhanced by deliberate human interventions at the level of urban design, institutional design, social policy, and individual action (including several measures to be considered in this paper). The paper is a philosophical reflection on our shared experiences of neighborhoods and family life, rather than an empirical study of a specific neighborhood or set of neighborhoods. As such, rather than disclosing new empirical data, my paper aims to explore the critical role of the neighborhood as a structure that introduces families into the life of society at large.

I begin by discussing four terms that play an important role in my argument, and stipulating what I mean by them: family, home, community, and society. Second, I discuss the concept of “neighborhood,” and argue that the neighborhood will normally play an especially important role in introducing members of the home to the concepts and rituals of social life. Third, I suggest that the contribution of the neighborhood to socialization and human development will depend on the degree to which the neighborhood is functional or dysfunctional, and I present a number of typical features of functional and dysfunctional neighborhoods respectively. Fourthly and finally, I offer some practical suggestions concerning how vibrant, flourishing neighborhoods may be promoted at the level of individual and collective action.