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`Quality of Life Trade Up, Trade Off

FOR several weeks our neighbors across the street have been spending evenings and weekends packing their possessions. Neatly labeled boxes - "Kitchen," "Family Room," "Master BR" - fill a corner of the living room, waiting to be transported to a larger house. From this three-bedroom ranch 12 miles west of Boston, the couple - he a lawyer, she a banker - and their toddler son are moving to a stately five-bedroom colonial 25 miles north of the city.

As a farewell gesture, they host a Sunday afternoon get-together to introduce neighbors to the new owners. When the husband shows the assembled guests photos of their new house, he is clearly proud of his mini-estate on an acre of land and the success it symbolizes. At the same time, he makes no attempt to disguise his mixed emotions about moving. He and his wife are gaining space - lots of space - but they are losing time from schedules that are already stretched thin.

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Instead of their usual 30-minute commute by train, they must now count on at least 50 minutes by car - more when traffic is heavy. "We're trading up to a terrible commute," the husband says with a rueful laugh. He sounds almost wistful when he adds, "I'm going to miss this house and this neighborhood."

Trading up epitomizes the American dream. From a newlywed couple's first apartment to a succession of ever-grander houses and cars and creature comforts, the yearning for more space and more possessions runs deep. Small may be beautiful, as E. F. Schumacher claimed in his 1970s bestseller, but big is still widely perceived as better, even if it means trade-offs like those our neighbors are making. Only in retirement does trading down - simplifying life by paring the contents of a family home to whatever will fit in a condo - typically gain a certain cachet.

Quality of life remains a subjective ideal. Some of the cities that rank highest on annual lists of "10 best places to live" can easily rank low in the eyes of those seeking different amenities and priorities.

Yet the longing for a better quality of life is what prompts frazzled workers in crowded cities to dream of running an inn in Vermont. In recent years it is also what has driven more than a million Californians to pull up stakes and point their Cherokees and Land Rovers - the late-20th-century version of covered wagons - east to resettle in the "new frontier" of Idaho and Nevada, where they hope to trade fast-lane lives for simpler pleasures, friendlier people, and safer neighborhoods.

In scaling back, these "lifestyle migrants" exemplify a growing realization that energy-efficient living involves conserving time and personal energy as much as it involves preserving natural resources.

Downsizing, the reigning corporate philosophy of the past few years, can be cruel when it is decreed by someone else and results in the loss of a paycheck. But when the transition is personal rather than professional - and totally voluntary - it can bring a satisfying new freedom.

A month before our neighbors packed up for exurbia, a colleague and his wife made a reverse move. Realizing that the two hours they spent commuting every day hardly counted as "quality time," they sold their four-bedroom house on a three-acre plot and moved to a two-bedroom high-rise in the city. They traded trees and grass and exurban tranquillity for the freedom and convenience of a short walk to work. Less hassle. More time. More control.

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"Quality of life" makes a fine round phrase. It is an improvement on its predecessor, "standard of living" - a term that smelled of money, luxury cars, private schools, and elite addresses. Yet whenever the word "quality" lives up to its meaning, it has little to do with external conditions or material resources. If the real subject is a happy life, the fundamental needs tend to be loyal friends, a family in harmony, and work of interest that is worth doing.

In the scaled-back '90s, what used to be known simply as a good life may not always conform to traditional patterns of upward mobility. When trading up - "progress" - requires too many trade-offs in time and money and work, the refreshing new dictum may be: The moving van - like the buck - stops here.

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