Take the question of where to live seriously. Don’t let inertia push you toward a big-name city, the place you grew up, or your old college haunts. Make a conscious decision to live somewhere that will improve your quality of life by really understanding what your core needs and interests are–and will be.
City leaders understand they are competing to attract vibrant, creative populations and are branding themselves accordingly. Young people get this, and many treat cities as a consumer product to be test-driven, like a new car. A white paper written by Next Generation Consulting stated that because of an increasing shortage in skilled workers, Generation Y is saying, “I can find a job anywhere. It’s more important to me to find a place where I fit in.”
Rebecca Ryan, CEO of Next Generation Consulting, says: “Where you live is more important than where you work because a mortgage and your kids’ school are more long-term than the job you have.”
So how do you choose where to live if everywhere is a possibility?
1. Understand what really matters.
Richard Florida, professor at George Mason University and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, summarized conclusions from a recent summit of the mavens of the economic development and psychology-of-happiness communities: “Place is as important as having a job that challenges you, but not as important as relationships with family and friends.”
Jane Ciccone, designer of jewelry line Jane Elizabeth, got it. She says she and her husband, “fell in love with San Francisco, but our families were in Massachusetts. We could have stayed in San Francisco if we could have gotten some of my family to move there. But no one would move because of the cost of living.” Now they live in Newburyport, MA, and she is expecting to give birth any day.
2. Leave room for career flexibility.
You probably won’t have the same career your whole life. If you move to a city where the culture or demographics reflect your values (think recycling rates, number of churches) and meets the needs of your non-work interests (e.g. kayaking in the Pacific Northwest) then you are more likely to move among careers without having to relocate away from your interests or relationships.
Realize that a high-cost of living directly affects what flexibility you have in your career. You severely limit your ability to drop in and out of the workforce and careers if you are raising kids and paying a mortgage in an expensive place.
3. Live where your income is at least as high as the median.
If you’re surrounded by people who have more money than you, you won’t feel like you have enough. The relative amount of money is what matters, according to Daniel Khaneman, who won a Nobel Prize for applying psychology to economics.
3. Consider that more choice is not intrinsically more desirable.
Do you really need to be able to choose from 20 takeout restaurants every night? Probably not. The same is true for private schools, and pet-friendly parks. More choices make us nervous about deciding and more likely to regret what we’ve ultimately settled on, according to Barry Schwartz, author of the Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. You don’t want life dictated to you, but you also don’t want to spend your whole life deliberating what-if scenarios.
4. Don’t relocate away from a spouse or significant other.
The single biggest factor in our happiness, according to many studies is not money, it’s our sex life. Daniel Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, has quantified it for us: “Going from sex once a month to sex once a week creates a big jump in happiness.” Caveat for the adventurous: Sex needs to be with a single, consistent partner to confer bigtime benefits.
5. Keep your commute short.
There’s a huge psychic cost to joining the suburban crawl. “You think you are moving out to the suburbs because it’s better for your kids, but in some cities, you’re never going to see your kids because you’re always in your car,” says Wendy Waters, founder of the blog All About Cities.
6. Seek diverse populations for a richer life.
Bigger cities are often among the most homogenous. Ethnic diversity and racial differences now are not as pronounced as economic and educational differences. Diverse ideas are often based in diverse experience; however housing costs are pushing out nearly everyone but the rich from the most popular cities.
Richard Florida says, “San Francisco is becoming an entirely homogenous place. This is true of entire regions and migration trends will make this worse. The creative revolution is creating a concentration of wealth worse than in the Industrial Revolution.”
7. Make a decision to improve the world.
“The key to solving this problem,” says Florida, “is not to beat up Boston and San Francisco, but to make second-tier cities attractive.”
In a large part, this is a government problem. Pay attention to cities such as Columbus, Ohio, where mayor Michael Coleman has a vision for the city that intensely embraces diversity. Or Madison, Wisconsin, where there’s a capable network of investors working with the government to promote local technology innovations.
You can find meaning in community by helping to promote diversity and creativity in a city such as these. You can help build new models for cities that make room for communities of people with diverse ideas and diverse income levels. The decision is a little like driving a hybrid car: We can’t fix everything in the world. But we can live our life in sync with our values and with intention to make a difference.