Does where we live make us happy?

I stumbled upon this index of “Happiest American Cities” and it got me to thinking about just what exactly makes me happy to live where I live. East Lansing, Michigan, is not the kind of place I brag about living. It’s not “where it’s at,” but for me, it has what I need: I walk to work each day, I enjoy my job and my education at Michigan State, and I have been satisfied by the relationships I have formed with the many people I have met in the past half-year. It doesn’t have the vibrancy and diversity a huge city, but has enough cultural diversity so that it doesn’t seem isolated. Despite hard economic times throughout Michigan, there is a friendly resilience to most of the people I have met.

When you examine the list of the happiest cities, the apparent trend is that western cities are happier places. I would have picked Boulder, CO (the happiest city) for my top ten, and would have probably included Fort Collins, Salt Lake City, Santa Cruz/Monterrey, and Boise in the top 20. There are numerous smaller cities that were not included for this survey (only metro areas of 250K qualified), and quite frankly, I would suspect that many smaller cities would eclipse these cities by a significant margin. For instance, Ithaca, NY — where I spent four years as an undergraduate at Ithaca College — has an excellent quality of life, despite the dreary and gray winters. Ithaca is home to Cornell University (and IC, don’t forget), boasts about 50,000 people, and is lodged in a beautiful natural setting, rife with hills, waterfalls and Cayuga Lake. The people who populate the city are generally enlightened, tolerant, and progressive. There are many small cities throughout the US that offer similar amenities… big city feel without the attitude… and with a closer proximity to nature.

The other point that interests me stems from a recent conversation with a colleague, who elaborated that people in the west “work to play,” reflecting a different approach towards the meaning and purpose of employment. It is a somewhat unfamiliar idea to me, having grown up in the Northeast, an area of the country that seems to pride itself on working for the sake of financial and social advancement. The Northeast is an expensive place to live, and there aren’t many places in the BosWash corridor where you can simply settle down, live in a bungalow-style home near a bike trail and a farmer’s market, and barely scratch out enough income to pay the mortgage. And what would be the point? Subsistence living, to me, only makes sense in areas where there are significant natural features to justify living a meager lifestyle. You move to the Northeast to make money. There are lots of jobs, but the price you pay… the price…

Which brings up another point… if you weren’t interested in financial or social advancement, why would you live in the Northeast? My best guess is that people have lived in Northeastern cities for generations. It was the first and only stop for many immigrants to this country, and many of their descendants have put down serious roots. When I left Philly three years ago to pursue a master’s degree in Minnesota, many people asked, “why would you leave Philly, everything you need is right here?” The best conclusion I have is that people’s primary reason for choosing a place to live is based on two things: jobs and family. Why would you tear up your roots if the job situation is “good enough?”

I am sure the western climate contributes to happiness. However, I also suspect that many people chose such locales because they knew that the place they lived would influence their happiness. For those who have the wherewithal to make that decision, congratulations on finding a great place to live. For those who don’t care to make that kind of a move, find a reason to enjoy where you are, and bloom where you are planted.

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