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Will Moving Make Me Happier?

The pros and cons of hitting the highway.

Peretz Partensky/Flickr
Source: Peretz Partensky/Flickr

People move to find something. Find work. Find love. Find happiness. Find themselves. Does moving actually help us find what we’re looking for?

It has been five years since we left Chicago for southern California. Carting boxes over icy sidewalks in subzero temperatures, shoveling out a snowbank the size of a moving truck—the proverbial grass had to be greener on the other side, right?

Research suggests that isn’t necessarily so. Schkade and Kahneman (1998) report that Midwesterners expect Californians to be more satisfied, when in fact people in both regions report similar levels of life satisfaction.

Perhaps the Midwesterner found a great deal of enjoyment visiting sunny, exciting SoCal. So much so that he assumed it would be a better place to live than his sleepy Midwest town. Once he’s made a case in his mind for relocating, it can be very difficult to challenge the perception of California (or wherever the location) that he has formulated. It’s beautiful, it’s warm, I love it, I’m leaving!

For a while, he’ll bask in the bounty of beaches and palm trees. He’ll marvel at his proximity to movie stars and brag about his distance from blizzards. But then he finds he’s gradually hitting the beach less often. The palm trees are blending into the background unnoticed. Driving in Hollywood no longer leaves him star-struck, it leaves him cursing the traffic gridlock. He has become habituated to his environment. A psychological phenomenon we’ve all experienced, where we gradually take things for granted and stop noticing that which once felt new and exciting.

What happens next to the Midwesterner seeking happiness? Despite habituation, has he found increased life satisfaction? Or, will he hop back on the hedonic treadmill of happiness hunting and hit the highway? The complexity of life satisfaction is influenced by so many factors beyond location. Does a move satisfy those factors or does it temporarily distract us from satisfying them?

Now I don’t mean to be a buzz kill. In many ways, I’m that Midwesterner. I craved the sunshine. Year-round gardening and a few backyard chickens. A short drive to both oceans and mountains. But I was also prepared for the change.

A client of mine—let’s call her Mary—made a similar move. She traded life in a large city for that of a mid-sized suburb in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Mary’s move didn’t hinge upon finding a better job market or escaping a bad relationship; she was seeking a community that shared her same values. She found what she was looking for in her new town. She was also prepared for the change.

So what does it mean to be prepared for the change?

It’s to know the root cause of what is calling us. It’s to know what we expect of the new location—what a move can and cannot provide when it comes to happiness. And it’s to know that moving is not easy. In fact, relocating and changing jobs are consistently ranked as some of the most stressful life events.

I don’t discourage moving but I encourage planning. Moving without planning can make a person unhappier than they were before they left. If the move doesn’t work out the person can find himself alone in a new place feeling like a failure and wondering what move to make next. I’ve been there and it’s no day at the beach.

Planning means exploring the depths of our motivation. Am I running away from something? Am I seeking a solution that a new location can or cannot provide? Am I attributing happiness to an external source when I should first be finding it within?

Planning also means understanding the factors that influence our life satisfaction and then making a realistic comparison between the existing location and the proposed location. Kind of takes the fun out of the moving fantasy, huh? Well, it might just help take the misery out of moving too.

Schkade and Kahneman write, “Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.” Below are many of the factors that we focus on which influence happiness and life satisfaction. Before deciding to move, gauge how each of these factors is influencing your current life satisfaction to the positive and negative. Then think about moving—what do you perceive will change and to what extent? Remember, satisfying change won’t simply happen to you as a result of moving; you still have to work hard to create it and sustain it.

  • Quality of life at the neighborhood and community level
  • Climate
  • Proximity to social support, family, and friends
  • Ability to be productive, purposeful, and creative
  • Sense of safety and trust in the community
  • Perceived stress, worry, and anger in the community
  • Number of negative experiences vs. positive ones
  • Ability to make choices, achieve goals, and be self-reliant
  • Promotion of health and wellness and access to healthcare
  • Cost of living, socioeconomic stability and employment security
  • Community alignment with personal values
  • Access to learning and stimulating activities

Incidentally, some of the factors above have been adapted from the World Happiness Report. According to their 2014 ranking of happiest countries, 7 of the top 10 countries have cold climates and far less annual sunshine than California! They include Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, and Sweden.

For all the research and all the preparation, there’s still a wondrous mystery to moving. Sometimes we simply have to satisfy the yearning of our wayfaring spirit, and no amount of advice will matter much when we feel the need to heed that primal call.

Copyright 2018 Brad Waters.

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