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.

127 replies
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  1. Ex-Madisonite
    Ex-Madisonite says:

    CP, you are funny.

    I’ve been to the “red hat” Miduro. Quite nice actually, had a great pianist and superb chocolate martini. But didn’t Madison ban smoking all together recently in bars? I thought I heard all cigar bars went out of business because of that law.

    Speaking of Capital Brewery, I do miss one thing: GREAT DATE…the best microbrewery. East Coast breweries can’t compare especially when it comes down to Octoberfest beer. Good with buffalo burger.

    SaBai Thong also had very good Tom Yum soup. Ask the owner there about this guy who ordred that on a weekly basis.

    Bureka sucked and Muramoto sucked. Sorry, but I’m out in Boston enjoying world-class sushi at Oishii with ex-Nobu chefs. Rated 27 for food on Zagat! If a sushi place does not have fresh Toro (fatty tuna belly) on the menu, then is it not much better than supermarket sushi.

    Like I said, Madison is a good first step to experiencing anything of culture (it is a college town) if you’ve never experience anything before, but no way can compete on a world class level.

    It sounds like you must have not fully explored Chicago growing up. To actally enjoy big cities you have to open up your wallet. $20 for dinner will get you chain food just like anywhere else. Most people when they are growing up, their parents don’t give them $50 for fusion sushi at Sushi Samba, or $100 to go have Brazilian steaks at Fogo De Chao, or $200 at Charlie Trotters. Expensive, but definitely worth it to experience at least once!

    Comparing Chicago with Madison is like comparing Las Vegas with Ho-Chunk Casino or some riverboat casino.

    CP tells you what sort of people actually “enjoy” Madison…..

  2. Gen
    Gen says:

    I’ve been living in NYC for 6 years and I’m moving out next month. I’m going back to Montreal.

    Believe me, you can live here on less than $30,000 a year, I’ve been doing it all this time. I’m in Washington Heights, I have a decent rent, although it’s only for a small one bedroom. So yes, you can live here without being rich, but can you be happy? I doubt it, and that’s why I’m moving back home.

    I still enjoy the energy of the city, the fast pace, the beauty of it, but although it’s true there’s never a dull moment in NYC, what’s the point of living here when you can’t afford to go to the many concerts, restaurants, events and etc?

    I’m moving back home, and I can’t wait.

  3. Cassaundra
    Cassaundra says:

    I just moved to Connecticut a few months ago, and plan to move to NYC within the next few months. I lived in Wisconsin my entire life. I’m 19, by the way (just so you know where I’m coming from). Anyway, Wisconsin is lovely. It’s a great place to raise a family. The people are extremely nice and the vegetation is as fresh as it comes. Madison is a nice area. You might want to consider Kenosha, as well. It’s about 2 hours from Chicago and 30 minutes from Milwaukee.
    You can check out this website for more information:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenosha%2C_Wisconsin

    And if that doesn’t interest you, maybe these will.
    You can compare :)
    http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/bplive/2006/snapshots/PL5539225.html
    http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/bplive/2006/snapshots/PL5548000.html

    Good luck,
    Cassaundra

  4. Joe Dalhart
    Joe Dalhart says:

    I am a native Texan and Austin resident, and am cracking up at some of these comments. Yes, Austin is changing and growing – €“ find a dynamic city anywhere that isn’t. And yes, gentrification is creeping into some of the old downtown neighborhoods. But the flip side is that there is now a more wide-ranging and diverse choice of neighborhoods and housing styles north, south, east and west of the city as well as downtown, not to mention a tremendous growth of desirable shopping, dining and entertainment options.

    We all hate the growing traffic and miss some things about the good ol’ days, but – €“ speaking as someone who travels alot on the job and has been to almost every mid-sized and major city in the country – €“ this is still one of the best places in America to live. And Penelope, we have four seasons – €“ in fact, it snowed for a good 15 minutes last February!

  5. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    My first guess is that you don’t even live in Austin, but in some far-out suburb that hasn’t been touched by the growth yet, like Driftwood, Spicewood, or Creedmoor…pulling cheesy lines like “tremendous growth of desirable shopping, dining and entertainment options” out of some issue of Newsweek that names Austin the number 1 city to move a brood for the umpteenth year in a row?

    Gentrification is not “creeping” in. It has stormed the east side so quickly that the residents there have no choice but to pack and leave, sometimes foreclosing on their properties that they can no longer afford, sometimes selling for pennies on the dollar to one of those “We buy ugly houses” people…have you seen their signs? If you’re really in Austin, then you’ve seen them on every street corner in every lower middle class neighborhood (http://media.www.dailytexanonline.com/media/storage/paper410/news/2005/08/10/TopStories/East-Austin.Growth.Pushes.Out.Poor-966425.shtml
    ).

    Unless, of course, you couldn’t think of travelling to a lower middle class neighborhood, which would be my second guess.

    Because they don’t have those signs on the FAR east side in Bastrop or Elgin, where they have neighborhoods called ‘The Enclave (duh)’ or ‘Shadow Glen (homes over an hour from Austin starting in the $210’s…YAY!)’ or in Round Rock, where an $80K home now sells for $350+ because of the quality of schools, or out west where there has NEVER been any diversity, or way down south (like south of Slaughter Ln) where development is really ramping up because the north side is just too damned expensive.

    Those are the next gentrified families you’ll see…the south-siders. The “78704…more than just a zipcode, it’s a way of life” people. You’ll see them pouring into Pflugerville and Cedar Park, just like all the east side families are doing as we speak.

    And no, we don’t have seasons. We have summer. With an ice storm. And then summer again.

    Culture? This’ll take the cake…we have a new Art Museum (voted by Austin Chronicle readers to be the number 1 art museum in Austin…but how are you not #1 when there really is no #2, or shouldn’t I ask?) called The Blanton. And in the Blanton, they have renaissance sculptures…but get closer…read the sign next to them…they say “cast of Michelangelo’s ‘David'” or “cast of Rodin’s ‘Life Study 4′”…THEY’RE PLASTER CASTS OF ART THAT IS SITTING IN ANOTHER MUSEUM!!! UNBELIEVABLE!!!

    But then it hit me…from Whole Foods (the most expensive grocer on earth and they don’t even use local farmers) to UT Film School (where they take UT money, hire Hollywood film crews, and lace them with a few UT unpaid interns) to an art museum that plagiarizes in order to fill space…this is Austin as a whole…from a few feet away it’s gorgeous, but get closer, and you’ll see the seam, and you’ll see just how fake the product is.

  6. DJK
    DJK says:

    I’m thinking of moving to the NYC/NJ area. Any advice on where best to live? We are a two income, over 40 couple, no kids. Have seen the world. NYC is cool. Work will be in Bergen county most likely around Wykoff or Ramsey. Love public transportation and love big cities but need to live somewhere not terribly noisy and hopefully not terribly expensive with good access to Int’l Airports.

  7. henrybemis
    henrybemis says:

    I’m African-American, grew up in Madison, and loved it. Wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. And so what if the population is mostly white (Scandanvian, German, or Irish descent)? Is this a horrible thing? No. If the whites were nasty, mean and racist – yes, but I’ve found more racism in big cities (New York, Chicago,) than anything in Wisconsin. Diversity is bunk. Unless it’s diversity that comes from the inside out

  8. boston
    boston says:

    I wouldn’t mind living amongst racists if I was the richest. The problem occurs when racists are of the majority race AND richer than you.

    Anyway, to all north easterners and Midwesterners (Wisconsin, MN, Chicago)…are you ready for another long winter? Hopefully you are rich enough to afford a vacation in the carribeans to take a break.

  9. Andreya
    Andreya says:

    Interesting blog!! & interesting research!!
    Do tell about results!:)

    I agree that you can be happy to an extent anywhere, but the environment does have some influence too – to a different degree on different people!

    I would also research well to make sure NOT to live in or upwind/downstream a heavily polluted industrialized area (chemical factories, old mercury mines, incinerators, landfills & such come to mind…) or one that is to become such… Also.. factories crawl out, any of the above-mentioned can be built… So eyes are to be open at all times..

    There are sites online that deal with this too.. & chart some ‘worst’ sites..

  10. steve
    steve says:

    In reguards to Madison Wi. I have been living here for about ten years and would like to share a few things about this place. First off at best the city is a safe bet. Low crime, a job market that can afford nearly anyone a low to low midrange pay job, affordable apartments but like most of the nation a housing market out of wack (in comparison to average wage) housing prices. If you have family here or married and starting a family you would likely be comfortable.
    At worst the city is anything but the vibrant metro it sells itself as. In short there is nothing to do here unless you are a bar hopping college student. Are you a single thirty something considering moving to madison? Don’t do it, especially if you are male. The single life is non existant! Nearly all the women are either grossly overweight, divorced with children, college hotties with a line of 100 frat boys waiting, or just as cold as the winters here. No nightlife whatsoever unless your college age or your idea of a good time is watching some sports team while drinking beers eating fried cheese curds while occasionally grunting during a “big play”.

  11. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Thanks steve…how nice would you call it for a couple of northern-blooded 30 year olds with a 7 year old girl who needs gifted schooling?

    We don’t need much of a nightlife…Chicago’s close enough for that one or two times a year we get to go out. We do need outdoors, though. I used to live in Waukesha as an early teen and remember there being a ton of parks in that area…how is it in Madison?

  12. Dina
    Dina says:

    I have recently moved to a remote place in the Galilee and work over the Internet, I am really happy this way and know that other people can take this choice as there are many more employment options for people that live in far places.

  13. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Hey Penelope…after posting to this thread for what seems like forever, I took a job with the Wisconsin Alumni Association and moved here to Madison a few days ago. Gonna take some getting used to but we like it so far…

  14. Jim Bell
    Jim Bell says:

    Penelope. Congrats on your move (er uh) 2 years ago. It sounds like you and your husband did your homework. I am a former NY resident too. Moved out in 1995. I moved to Champaign, Illinois (3 years), Atlanta (7 years), chased a job in Baltimore (1 scary year) and came back to Atlanta. It’s been a crazy ride but, each move brought a greater appreciation of the area and it’s people. Do people find places to live or do places find people….. Hmmmm

    My wife and I are talking about the possibility of living abroad at some point.

  15. NYC Movers
    NYC Movers says:

    What is happiness is still a subject to discover.You are right that happiness almost depends on the environment.Moving from one place to another is a good job because it changes the atmospher which is good for health.Have a nice journey.

  16. Joanny
    Joanny says:

    Hey Penelope,

    I just stumbled across this post on google since my boyfriend of nearly 3 yrs and I are really SICK AND TIRED OF NYC. We don’t need diversity (as far as ethnicity goes), we just want to live somewhere safe, without ghetto mentality, where good/decent jobs are available and where we can settle and raise a family (down the line). We are in our early/approaching mid twenties and we’ve considered from North Carolina to moving out of the country!

    Any advice? Or, more importantly- if you have posted any sort of a follow up blog to this, it would be helpful and appreciated.

    Thanks!
    – Joanny

  17. movers
    movers says:

    I’m thinking of moving to the NYC/NJ area. Any advice on where best to live? We are a two income, over 40 couple, no kids. Have seen the world

  18. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    Dont move to Wisconsin unless you are prepared to shovel tons and tons of snow. It’s so depressing there in the winter. The summer is awesome though, lots of festivals and the like go on. (I’m from Milwaukee, live in NYC, looking to move elsewhere as well, I’m thinking Seattle).

  19. Ikelite
    Ikelite says:

    Oh, I like that the Madison people are weighing in. Thank you. There’s no Welcome Wagon like a string of local comments to make you feel at home.

  20. nshoshany
    nshoshany says:

    I think that NYC is the best place to live. I moved here last month, and things are moving up. I am waiting now to my New York movers to come and bring all my belongings to my new home.

  21. amy
    amy says:

    Hey,
    So interesting! We moved to Madison last summer from Montreal, before that London England. Honestly Honestly, it took more out of me than I thought it would. We had an amazing life in Montreal, fab condo in a great neighborhood with tons of cafes, shops, theatre. But we have 2 young children, so as someone posted earlier, we no longer had 1. time 2. money to enjoy all those things. We live in the Regent Street Neighborhood in Madison near west side. It has been a whole paradigm shift for me. This is the stage of my life when I nurture my kids, and once I accepted that I am out of the ‘fast lane’ for now (or ever) I realized how perfect it is here. Now, yes, Muromoto sushi is horrible. But I have been surprised how the downtown explodes with outdoor terraces in the summer, my favorite is The Orphium Theatre. I am also surprised by the biking and moped culture, and the uber hippy crusty artists of the east side. Let’s call an apple an apple, Madison is not the dynamic bustling diverse artistic cosmo city of Montreal which I miss so dearly, but it is perfect for now. And so far, it is taking very good care of our family.

    • Jeremy
      Jeremy says:

      Amy! Takara on State is about as good as you’re gonna get for sushi in this town…I’ve lived here for a year and learned to deal; saving my sushi dollars for my drives to Milwaukee and Chicago.

  22. Justin
    Justin says:

    I lived in Madison for four years or so before moving out east; despite liking the change of scenery and proximity to my friends, I would LOVE to move back to Madison, and I’d do it in a heartbeat probably.

    I know you’ve already moved, but developments in Fitchburg and Middleton are nice places to live, if a bit on the expensive side; stay away from neighborhoods near the Beltline off Gammon Road, though, as cops don’t like going out there unless there’s a body to be tagged-n-bagged; further down Gammon towards Fitchburg is nice, though.

    For shopping, State Street is a MUST, especially with shops closing on the outer ring of the city. Once my local music store closed off Mineral Point Rd, I worked up the courage to do all my music and general shopping off State Street, grabbing Noodles & Co. before heading home. On the subject of parking, find a lot or garage instead of a meter; every time I parked at a meter, without fail, I got towed because of some obscured street sign denoting that parking there between 4 and 5pm, on the night of a full moon, with your windows shut, was illegal.

    I hope you’ve enjoyed Madison thus far! I heard bad things about the inner city schools, but heard that Middleton Schools were doing well for themselves, all things considered (Though they did have a pot problem on campus at the High School while my brother attended).

    Let’s see, other places of note:
    Culvers (Have a butterburger and concrete mixer for me!)
    Middleton Diner (Delicious food and pies)
    Preplayed (Two locations, one each on East/West side of town; has a variety of cheap DVDs, Books, and legacy stuff like Comics, Posters, Vinyls and even Atari Games)
    Ultrazone Laser Tag (In a shopping center near the West Towne Mall, behind the Burger King; Friday Night Frenzy is all-you-can-play for $20, starting at 7:30pm I think)

    Going from Madison, WI to Bridgeport, WV was a total culture shock for me, and not the good kind. I really miss Madison, especially the culture. Being so close to the Dells, Milwaukee, AND Chicago is also a real treat.

  23. Katie
    Katie says:

    Hi- it looks like I’m coming across this post fairly late, but just wanted to check-in to see how you’re liking Madison. Ironically, I moved to NYC in September 2007 after growing up in a small town called McFarland and studying at the UW. I absolutely love it in NYC, though I am a 25-year old, single woman who doesn’t have any children or commitments so our situations are a bit different.
    I’m glad so many Madisoninas (past and present) welcomed you by providing lots of great insight into the city. The only thing I would add, if you haven’t already discovered these, is The Dane County Farmer’s Market (rated the Best Farmer’s Market in the nation back in ’07, probably still is the best) on Saturdays, the Henry Vilas Zoo (one of the nations only FEE zoos that is kept in remarkable shape) and the Memorial Union Terrace (outdoor seating on Lake Mendota with popcorn, great beer and Babcock ice cream).
    Take care and On Wisconsin,
    Katie

  24. Matt B
    Matt B says:

    Why get hung up on the lack of sushi when there are thousands of lakes filled with perch, bluegills, northern pike, walleyes, etc within a couple hundred miles? Isn’t eating local the big thing nowadays?

    Anyway, Madison is great. I’m not going to make cracks about the snow — quite frankly, I enjoy it. But I would advise to pick a home OUTSIDE of the snow emergency zone, so you don’t have to move your car every night during the winter. (Unless you’ve got a big enough garage/driveway, natch.)

  25. London Removals
    London Removals says:

    You no what, id love to live somewhere where it has lots of snow and stuff i think the scenery would be awesome.So yes i suppose it would make a big impact on your lifestyle if your happy where your living.Everthing what your saying is so true.

  26. Teela Kade
    Teela Kade says:

    My entire family is from Madison (West Side). I moved to NYC about 3 years ago and I am surprised I haven’t yet written a book about the transition. I attended a private grade school and a private college prep high school in Madtown – had friends at the public schools. I loved growing up in Madison and I love the town even more now that I have lived in NYC. When I go back to Madison I appreciate what I didn’t see before (different cuisines, neighborhoods, activities, culture, pace, etc). I Think growing up in Madison was amazing and I go back about three times a year, just for the heck of it! In fact, last time I was home I discovered this Turkish restaurant on State Street called Husnu’s. SO GOOD! I can go on and on about restaurants…but I have to go eat some cheese curds now.

  27. Jeremy in Madtown
    Jeremy in Madtown says:

    Teela….nice! I’m growing closer and closer to this place every day, having moved here from Austin. It’s largely the same without the horrible heat and suburban sprawl. It’s as if someone took the parts I loved about Austin, gathered them all up and dropped them in a northern farm field. :)

    And Husnu’s….Yum! Kabul Afghani Restaurant right next door is unbelievable as well!

  28. Wilbert
    Wilbert says:

    Moving can be a serious hassle. I once moved overseas and after the stress involved with that….never moving again. Madison does sound like an excellent choice though. Good luck with everything!

  29. cadey
    cadey says:

    Take it from me, I live in North Carolina and it’s nothing special. It’s boring and the schools aren’t great, my boyfriend and I are trying to move out of North Carolina. If you’re from the city like my boyfriend, he was born and raised in Brooklyn, you will hate driving in NC. most people can’t drive, and they are assholes and have no sense of urgency. I’m looking into different areas, maybe oregon or wisconsin personally, but I’m not sure where we will move to. The weather here is bipolar, one minute it’s sunny, the next it’s raining. Also, if you have kids expect them to be out of school, even if it’s just a flurry. north carolina is completely incapable of handling any kind of snow, it practically paralyzes people around here.

  30. Graham Campion
    Graham Campion says:

    Hi Penelope

    I live in the UK in a rural area. I frequently visit the US
    for stays of approx. 6 weeks. On the whole these are very enjoyable experiences – When I was younger I really wanted to move to the US permanently; but US immigration does favour white, European educated people! So time has passed and I no longer feel the same desire. Being old in America does not seem to me to be a desirable state to aspire to. So it may be that the cliche “be careful what you wish for” as a kernal of truth in it after all.

    Take care

    Graham

  31. Movers Baltimore
    Movers Baltimore says:

    I mean come on now. You can not judge people unless you really know them. More over I have been living in a neighborhood and I was sure that I know my neighbors until I found out that the rude guy next door was an actual red cross activist.

  32. movers dc
    movers dc says:

    can i have your apartment/house then – we could swap and you could live in london for a while – i love nyc why would you want to move? ;-)

  33. Mark Wiehenstroer
    Mark Wiehenstroer says:

    There’s two recent blog posts on the Wolfram|Alpha site (computational knowledge engine) that apply to this post to some extent here.
    Wolfram|Alpha Computes the Cost of Living Today – http://blog.wolframalpha.com/2011/10/21/wolframalpha-computes-the-cost-of-living-today/ andLearn About Individual Public Schools with Wolfram|Alpha – http://blog.wolframalpha.com/2011/09/08/learn-about-individual-public-schools-with-wolframalpha/ 

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