Lighting Up Our Psyches

University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling studies what personal spaces — like offices and bedrooms — can tell us about their owners.  These rooms are particularly revealing about whether the occupant is open and conscientious, Gosling says.

All of this — which Gosling refers to as the “science of snooping” — validates my most recent theorizing about holiday lights.  So I’m not a scientist — big deal.  I’ve got two eyes and lots of opinions.

For example: Right now, around our neighborhood, holiday lights blaze at night.  All-white seems to be the predominant trend this year.  (This figures.  Our own house, of course, has multicolored lights.  If we ever get all-white lights, it won’t be till they’re out of style.)

But anyway, nosing around our neighborhood (which I cleverly disguise as “taking a walk”), I’ve come up with a new, important theory that Gosling might be interested in.  Here it is:  The more dramatic, professional and dazzling the lights, the less neighborly the homeowners are.

Take the people who live catti-corner from us.  At least, I think people live there, behind the big, unwelcoming, Gulag-styled brick wall they erected a couple of years ago.  Sometimes I see cars come and go, but I’ve rarely seen people.  Nobody in our neighborhood has ever spoken to them, either.  But we’re pretty sure the house is populated.

These neighbors’ lights, though — white, of course, and professionally installed — flash and twinkle all night long this time of year.  They’re not as warm and comforting as neighborly chats and waves, but at least they’re dependable.

At our house, you can see another personality dynamic at work.  Our lights this year look very much like the lights we displayed last year.  And the year before.  That’s because they’re the same lights we’ve had up for years; we just don’t turn them on till late November.  From this information, you can reasonably surmise that we’re slobs.  But, I like to think, we’re neighborly slobs.

That’s some information — but it’s only a start.  You can always dig deeper and find out more.

You can see, in our year-round holiday lights, the story of a long-married couple.  Every year, after Thanksgiving, he climbed up on the roof and decorated the house and it looked great.  Every January, she started nagging him to take them down.  Some years, when she was feeling especially vocal, they came down in February or March.  (January was always just a dream.)  Other years, they were up till May or till a new roof was put on.

The years passed.  One year, the holiday lights were still up in July.  How do you ask someone to take the holiday lights down when it’s only five months till Christmas?  “Pretend they’re early this year,” he said.  She did.

After that, she knew it was over.  It was one of those battles she finally surrendered — like the dirty socks on the floor, homemade fireworks on the Fourth of July, presents on Christmas morning, instead of Christmas Eve.  She saved herself for bigger battles, such as which house they should buy (she had been right, everyone now admitted), whose marital duty it was to take care of last year’s little rodent problem (drawing on the little-known, but very helpful feminist belief that rats are men’s business), what to name the kids (pregnancy gives priority, in another heralded feminist decision).

So, you see — you think you’re just seeing holiday lights when you walk or drive past people’s houses.  But, really, it’s so much more.  We’re living our lives, baring our souls, dramatizing our intimate struggles — and putting them on display every year.

Just ask Sam Gosling.  He’ll back me up, I feel sure.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

2 comments… add one
  • Hi ladies,

    Nice looking blog, AND you can write!

    Just an FYI about Sam Gosling and his work. I know Sam well and a process I use in our architecture firm will be part of the subject of his upcoming book, The Secret Life of Stuff.

    If you are interested, please check out my blog (which discusses subjects related to “home as an emotional experience”, including Sam’s work, at Architecture of Life blog. The url is

    Something else in the subject area you might find interesting is our new start-up (Austin and Round Top (pop-77) based) at

    So if you are interested in viewing your home – as you obviously are – as an expression of your self, you should check it out.

  • We have been in our current home 5 yrs.  My husband was feeling rather festive a couple weeks ago after some wine and thought we needed more lights out side.  I rushed to BJs and bought several boxes of white lights (kids and husband want multicolor–I told them BJs was out.  I wanted white).  He finished them tonight and I stood on the lawn and all I could think was, “he is never taking those suckers back down..”

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