It used to be that people moved to where their job was. But where you live has a lot of impact on how happy you are. So it makes sense that today people pick a city first and then find a job, and cities maven Wendy Waters thinks this trend will increase. I will be part of this trend on Monday, when I move.

I have spent the last six months studying statistics about cities and matching them with statistics about happiness. This is serious scientific research that is changing how universties teach and how city planners think.

Here are the two guiding principles of my research:

1. People are very bad at predicting what will make them happy.
We overestimate how bad the bad will be, for example. We think we will be really sad if we lose a leg, but in fact, people who lose a limb are not any sadder, as a population, than people who have not lost a limb. I learned this from an interview with Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, and I quote him so often he is practically my guest blogger.

2. The studies about happiness will most likely apply to me (and you).
This I also learned from Gilbert. He says that even though most people think they are exceptional, most people are normal. Of course. That’s what normal is. But most football players think they are above average (they are not) and most people think they are below average jugglers (they are not). We are all basically average. (You can read more about this in his book, which I also constantly hype.)

Here are the two things that I thought were most important when we talk about the intersection of geography and happiness:

1. People are happy if they earn what their friends earn.
Relative income, rather than any certain level of income, affects well-being, according to Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for applying the principles of psychology to economics.

I remember a piece I read in the New York Times (which would be a link you’d have to pay for so I’m not even going to bother looking for it.) It was a story about how real estate agents know way too much about their clients. One agent talked about when a husband and wife were looking for summer rentals in the Hamptons. They walked into a five million dollar home and the wife said, “We wouldn’t have to live like this if you’d get a decent job.”

It’s not about how much you have, it’s about how much your friends have. So you should live in a place where you will have as much money as the people you meet. My husband and I are constantly examining our jobs and our childcare setup, so I know we need a city with a low cost of living in order to guarantee that we never fall below the median during our trials and errors.

2. You will like what other people like.
I want good schools because I have two young kids. I checked out lots of school rankings. The more I pored over these different rankings, the more I distrusted them. Every list had different results, and the whole process seemed to be pretty subjective.

Gilbert is doing a study right now that shows that if you want to know if you should date a given person on Match.com, ask the last person he dated. If the last date liked him then you will like him. So I decided that choosing a school district is like dating, and the most important thing in picking a school is that other families love the school district.

Finally, as a tie-breaker, I looked at how economic development experts rated cities. I love the economic development people because their job is to think about how to leverage the community to make life vibrant.

I focused on the rock star of economic development, Richard Florida. He ranks cities according to how creative they are. You can search by topics like how technology-oriented the city is(technology=innovative business), or how gay it is (gay=diversity=open minds for new ideas). Each city gets a score that reflects the level of creative thinking among its population.

So, where did I choose? Madison, Wisc.

Madison is inexpensive, the people who live there love the schools, and the city comes up on best places lists all the time.

For all the research I’ve done, though, I have no idea where to live within the city. So it’d be great if there’s a Madison native out there who could post some suggestions.