Housing & Mortgage
Moving for Happiness, Part 1: Neighbors
How to relocate among people who bring you joy
You’re thinking about moving, from your hometown or college town or wherever you’ve been lately. Perhaps you’ve just graduated and are pursuing jobs in several states. Or you need to relocate so your spouse can find a better job. Or maybe you and your partner come from different cities, and you’re considering those so your kids can grow up near some extended family.
I’ve made plenty of location choices based on such practical reasons. I moved to Houston for my first writing job, London for career advancement and small-town Mississippi for a spouse’s work. Another spousal job landed me in a coastal Florida city I’ve come to dearly love. I’m never leaving.
I found my personal paradise by pure luck. We were thinking about finances and careers when we moved here, not long-term happiness. But the location has so shaped my life, in such good ways, that I’ve thought a lot about how, had I tried to, I might have found it on purpose rather than by chance. I’ve compiled these musings into a laundry list of factors — 21 mostly data-based questions I could have researched before the move — that would have clued me in early on to the joy this place brings me.
Starting here, I’ve divided my 21 questions into three articles aimed at helping others (including my adult kids) gauge where in this country they might be happiest. In many cases, I’ve pointed out resources beyond basic ogling and Googling that can help answer them. You can use it to compare the locals, the landscape and the economics of all your relocation possibilities. Build a spreadsheet, if you’re so inclined.
Few of these questions relate to jobs and finances. Yes, my dream city offers me a comfortable income, but so did many others. And no, the beach is not a primary factor in my satisfaction here. That’s one of the many ways my happiness triggers may differ from yours. The beauty of the list, I think, is that you can weight any one factor according to your own beliefs and priorities.
In researching this article, however, I learned that the things I love about my location line up well with findings in expert studies on happiness. (Dan Buettner’s book “The Blue Zones of Happiness” does a great job of distilling serious research into the characteristics of happy people and places.)
For example, the research says spending a lot of time with people who make you laugh and have your back is one of the surest paths to happiness. About a third of my questions (those below) are aimed at determining whether the people already living in the location could become this social network for you — meaning, your community in the most intimate sense.
Part 2 will look at whether the landscape and infrastructure of location are conducive to regularly connecting with this community. Part 3 offers questions to judge the financial impact of living there. Because while excessive cash doesn’t buy happiness, it’s harder to find even contentment when stressed about paying basic bills.
I hope that just going through my list will have you thinking in unexpected ways about how location affects your mood and your life. To start, let’s find out about the people in your prospective destination.
Are people in the community especially young, married, childless or educated?
Data from the website TownCharts allows you to uncover hundreds of demographic differences in your potential destinations. You can use these rather dry, Census-based population facts to intuit much more interesting details about a place. Say you’re interested in dating. Turns out Atlanta has a much bigger percentage of single men than Houston, Seattle or New York.
Are people overtly liberal or conservative?
Even if you’re not interested in politics, you likely care about some characteristics of each group or party. Gun ownership? Check out per capita gun ownership by state. Attitudes toward the less fortunate? This study ranks the most caring U.S. cities. Propensity to lock up undocumented immigrants or defend them? Google for the latest list of sanctuary cities, as well as places where local police also serve as immigration enforcers. Finally, an interactive map by the New York Times shows just how staunchly red or blue voters in the area went in the last presidential election.
Do locals embrace or ignore healthy lifestyles?
The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being project includes a series of high-quality studies that help answer that question. In addition to ranking nearly 200 communities by the well-being of residents, the project offers location-specific stats on prevalence of diabetes, rates of healthy eating and propensity to exercise. All the studies are free and downloadable.
Do they sweat, stretch, dance, dine or learn in ways that interest you?
Meetup.com is an excellent resource for finding like-minded people anywhere, whether it’s San Diego or Boston or Topeka, Kansas. Visit (ideally, physically) a Meetup group for hikers, bikers, divorced parents, antiques shoppers or bitcoin fanatics — whatever your interest or demographic — and you’ll quickly learn about the abundance or dearth of local opportunities to practice your passion. Do it before you decide to move there.
How important is religion to people in the community?
I once lived in a town that had three or four restaurants (think Dairy Queen and the like) and maybe 25 houses of worship. Their services, potlucks, sports teams, mom’s groups, Bible studies and the like gave religious newcomers an immediate pool of potential friends. Those disinclined to worship found the town seriously short of socializing opportunities. Today’s mover might Google to judge this. For me, the abundance of crosses and Jesus-related billboards were clues enough.
Do they welcome neighbors whose income/race/sexual orientation/birthplace/background differs from their own?
Bigotry rarely leads to happiness, in either the intolerant residents or their targets. A WalletHub study ranks ethnic diversity of 500 cities. NerdWallet ranks the top 20 LGBT-friendly cities. This Urban Institute interactive study illustrates the level of economic and/or racial variety in 274 cities. But attitudes are very local. Look around. Talk to people.