How to decide where to live

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Three years ago, I made a decision to move from New York City to Madison, WI based purely on research. I put economic development research together with positive psychology research. Then I combed the Internet for city statistics, and I moved. (If you want to read the research I used, I linked to it all in this post.)

I had never been to Madison in my life, and you know what? It was a good decision. Except for one thing: I ignored the data about schools. I didn’t believe that a city known for progressive social programs and university filled with genius faculty could have poorly performing public schools. But it ended up being true, and all economic development research says do not move to a place with crap schools—it’s a sign that lots of things in the city are not right.

So when you decide where to live, pay attention to the research. Ignore stuff like the geography of personality because it’s interesting, but there’s no data that says it correlates to what makes you happy. And pay attention to research that flies in the face of everything you know, like you can be a millionaire anywhere. But, then, you should probably not be looking at that research because being a millionaire won’t impact your happiness so it should not impact where you choose to live.

Here’s some research I’ve found recently that you should consider if you’re considering relocating:

Live by water.
People who live inland are not as happy as people who live near water, according to research coming out in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. And some scientists think this is because humans evolved by following the shorelines and living off water life. So, the Journal of Preventative Medicine shows that if you live in the Appalachian Mountains you are twice as likely to have mental illness than if you live in Hawaii.

Live where people have as much money as you do.
Of course, the Hawaii vs. Appalachia issue is clouded by the overwhelming evidence that people have a lot more money in Hawaii. It’s true that money does not buy happiness. But it is only true if you are not living in poverty. Poverty is pervasive in Appalachia, so that probably accounts for a lot of the mental health problems there. But don’t go move somewhere where everyone’s got a lot of money, because financial security is relative. And you need to have a little more money than your friends do in order to feel financially secure.

Move to where your friends are.
If you move within a mile of a good friend, both of you will become significantly happier, according to Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Harvard. If you’re considering relocating away from friends and family because you believe money will buy happiness, you are sort of right. But Nattavudh Powdthavee of the University of London shows that you’d need to have a salary increase of at least $133,000 in order to have a net positive impact on your happiness from that move.

Move to an inexpensive city if you want to start a company.
Seventy percent of Gen Y wants to start a company. So a lot of people are relocating to do that. You might think you need to be in Silicon Valley since the people there never shut up about their startup culture. But in fact, most startups need to keep their burn rate low more than they need that mythic startup culture, so you should move to a city with a low cost of living.

Maybe you should stay where you are.
When one spouse relocates for another, they generally end up earning less over their career because of it. So maybe spouses should stop relocating, period. There is a widespread feeling among Generation Y that transience is exhausting, and relocating away from family and friends for a job is a nonstarter. And anyway, it used to be that you could get a company to pay for your relocation, but Microsoft is no longer doing that, and you can bet other companies will follow.

So at some point, relocation starts looking expensive, high risk, and maybe a bad idea. Unless you’re starting from New York City.



118 replies
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  1. Matt
    Matt says:

    Good points – especially the bit about Gen Yers looking to start companies, and how they should focus on places with a low cost of living.

    Personally, I believe all places have a unique “quality of place,” and the real challenge is to determine what that is and then determine if it’s what you’re looking for in new place to live.

    For example, my hometown in Michigan has great schools, a beautiful park system and decent government. In short, it’s a wonderful place to raise a family. That said, it wouldn’t be my first choice as a young professional, because it has historically been closely tied to the auto industry.

  2. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    How timely for me to read this.

    I’ve been obsessed with moving the last 2 years, as I can’t take another Minnesota winter. But — how does one go about moving their freelance business to another state where I have very few contacts? Will dig into your blog more to read about how you reached this decision, Penelope. Would also like to hear from other freelancers/small biz owners who moved their business, and how they did it. I need an instruction manual.

  3. KT
    KT says:

    Interesting that nobody’s commented yet on “live where people have as much money as you.” I wish I’d known that when I chose to live in california wine country. I always thought of myself as average middle-class and totally adequate, until I’d been here long enough to see how the very rich live, and the power and sense of entitlement they have to make decisions that affect the entire community, with little regard for the negative consequences for some of its most vulnerable members. Funding $1000/plate dinners for “public art”, while storming city council meetings to demand a proposed shelter for homeless be banned … All while patting themselves and each other on the back for their “philanthropic nature.” I feel bitter and marginalized. And am getting ready to move, after 15 years.

  4. Janet Aronica
    Janet Aronica says:

    2009 college grad here, three days away from moving to Boston from Upstate NY. Except for freshman year in Ohio, I’ve lived in this area my whole life. I’ll be sharing a postage stamp-sized two bedroom with my best friend, her boyfriend, a cat, a mouse, and a bunny (collectively we are paying more than a lot of Upstaters pay for mortgages). At an economic time when most of the graduates I know are moving home to save money, I’m moving to one of the most expensive cities possible. I’m moving there for an internship and a lot of people think I’m a little crazy. But there is something inside me that tells me I have to do this and if I don’t do this now I never will. Even if I don’t return home in the long run, I think being away from it will help me appreciate it more. Thanks for the post, Penelope. :)

  5. Mike
    Mike says:

    I graduated from a Madison public high school five years ago and agree that MMSD’s once “great” reputation (according to my parents, why they moved there) was turning to garbage around that time. It seems like this reputation just donut-ed out to the suburbs while leaving Madison behind in the middle, and schools like Middleton, Monona Grove, and Sun Prairie are now what Madison schools used to be. Anyways, just speculating based on what it was like a few years ago.

    And I’m sure you’ve looked into it, but you can basically drive to MG or Middleton HS without even realizing you’ve left Madison.

  6. Yvette @ Capsule
    Yvette @ Capsule says:

    I grew up in Western Australia, next to the beach. I then moved to Sydney, also on a beach. I now live in Minneapolis, smack bang in the middle of the prairie and the Great Lakes! The lifestyle and vibe here is comfortingly similar to Perth, my home city – maybe the lakes count for something. Although, if work permitted it, I would definitely choose Austin as a new home for a few years at least. What a place.

  7. Me
    Me says:

    Moving by your own choice, on your terms, is a great thing. Even if it turns out to be a mistake, at least you were in the driver’s seat. Moving because you must follow the work (e.g., you’re in a highly specialized profession) is a whole different creature.

    In 2007 we were uprooted by job loss for the second time in four years and moved from the Midwest to Colorado. My husband and daughter are enjoying it, and the mountains are beautiful (and the schools good)–but I think it sucks. The Front Range is populated with self-absorbed super-jocks and the descendants of misanthropic pioneers who no longer live on 1000-acre ranches but act like it. Everyone has an 8-foot privacy fence, and the local idea of being neighborly is waving to each other on the bike path or mountain trail. The friendliest people I’ve met are from the Midwest and–yes–NYC!

    If we had a choice, we’d move back to the Midwest, close to family and friends in Indiana, where people pretty much take you as you are.

    • Jonathan B.
      Jonathan B. says:

      Making a move on your own terms is huge, and cheers to those supporting the adventure of living in a new place.

      To all: If you are moving to escape something, be careful. Your keenest sensibility is your ally here. If you are attempting to escape a personal problem, it will absolutely follow you, as it is not exclusive to your surroundings. You are your own shrink.

  8. froggyprager
    froggyprager says:

    I have seen you write this before about the Madison schools and I would like to know more about why you think they are so bad. We have one kid in 1st grade in a good one and love it. My wife is a former public school teacher from IL and now a eduction professor and has been in 100s of classrooms and thinks that the Madison schools are very good. What is your beef and what would make them better?
    I know it is not the purpose of your post but I’d like to know why you’ve reached this opionion. The high quality schools are part of why we decided to move here.

  9. Mikey Balmoral
    Mikey Balmoral says:

    I teach dj lessons here in my city of Vancouver. The reality is that a lot of cities don’t have the market to sustain such a business so I don’t bother looking elsewhere. I have traveled a lot but will always call my city my home because this is where my business is!

  10. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    After reading your post, my pre-move planning now seems almost Beverly Hillbilly-esque. I was living in PA, had an interview in Chapel Hill, NC, got the offer, went down to look for apartments, and spent the next 8 years there.

    It would be great if more college students took a broader view on where to live after they graduate. When it comes to the job search, it seems like they all too often want to limit their options to companies located within a 2 mile radius of their house.

    • Me
      Me says:

      “within a 2 mile radius of their house”–that gave me a good laugh. As a college instructor, I hear that all the time. I reply this way: If you want to stay home, then it’s better to get a degree that suits your hometown’s job market–not your preferences or dreams or abilities…

  11. Chris
    Chris says:

    And one more comment on the schools of Madison, to counter the flippant and seemingly uninformed perspective expressed in the earlier post–Kiplinger recently ran a story on the best places to live, and Madison got a

    in part because of the schools: “This city also wins for its low crime rate [and] first-rate public schools.

  12. Paul
    Paul says:

    A lot of talk upcomments about New York, where I lived for years and am now part-time (grad school in IA, where I’m really from).

    Mike (5/21) argues that NY is the (his?) best place because one ought to have an interesting life in preference to a happy one.

    We’re used to NYers saying you need this level of culture and energy, and that the alienation and stress are either a fair price to pay or make you a deeper, realer person in themselves.

    My experience was largely the opposite: NY took what I had to offer and drained me dry, physically, mentally and emotionally. It happens to people, good people, and real NYers dont like to talk about it, because the myth is that these were expendable, bush-league wimps who simply haven’t got The Stuff, and that nothing worthwhile can thrive outside New York. Or ought to.

    A lot of that addictive energy of New York, more than people realize, is mythic energy. Another part, an important part, is negative: neurosis, arrogance, survival instinct are productive, yet they come at a high cost.

    If you’re attracted by the place and the pace, you need to understand the myth and be prepared to live it. Cool, if you can. But it’s Not For Everybody, and I don’t mean to label anyone a wimp or a bushleaguer by saying so.

    I’ll remind everyone of an old Chinese saying: “May you live in interesting times.” It was meant as a backhanded wish – as much a curse as a blessing.

    Along that line, Mike, I wish for you to live in interesting places, and to be only as happy as you can stand to be.

  13. Dan
    Dan says:

    Seriously, why do you continue to push this “BS” that you magically stumbled upon Madison, WI via data. You did not consider any other places away from your precious family i that dumptown of Rockford, IL.

    Why not state this, “I relocated to be closer to my family.” This has nothing to do with quality of life in precious Madison. I have lived there and only lifers think Madison is the “coolest place” on earth because they have never dreamed that a world existed outside of their liberal, insular surroundings.

    The place is way too cold, there aren’t many high paying white collar jobs, most jobs are in state government or the University, the City freezes over for 8 months out of the year, it’s over policed like some communist people’s Republic, and almost everyone there is a radical left winger who thinks they are diverse because they have a gay friend, even though all their other friends and everyone they live by is lilly white like they are.

    Give me a break.

    • Mitch
      Mitch says:

      @Dan: Wow! As a person that has a little bit of family in Rockford, on their behalf I’d like to extend my middle finger and say… STFU.

      That said, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

  14. Ann
    Ann says:

    “So, the Journal of Preventative Medicine shows that if you live in the Appalachian Mountains you are twice as likely to have mental illness than if you live in Hawaii.”

    I think the likeliness to acquire mental illness as a result of living in the Appalachian Mountains is more due to the imbred gene pool (many mental illnesses are genetic) than the lack of large watery bodies nearby. Anyhow, interesting post.

  15. House Music
    House Music says:

    @Yvette – i miss Australia dearly, i could see myself living in somwhere between Cairns and Brisbane… Austin seems a bit off the map

  16. Barbara Saunders
    Barbara Saunders says:

    I’m surprised not to see much commentary about San Francisco. Despite gentler weather and a laid back attitude, the cost of living here means a lot of stressful just-above-poor living – just like in New York (with less “culture”), though few San Franciscans will admit as much.

  17. Naomi Leila
    Naomi Leila says:

    I have to wonder how involved you were and what Madison area public school you sent your child(ren) to? I moved back to the area because of the advantages of the incredible public schools. Yes, I am partial to Middleton suburb/city) over Madison. And yes, I would only live on the west side of the city, or preferably in Middleton school district. I am also aware that my own involvement in my child’s life directly affects how successful their education will be, at any level, in any school, public or private. Despite my longing to be in a larger city, I could not find a more convincing reason for living anywhere, than the strength of a public school system that successfully prepares a high school graduate to enter a competetive college at a level beyond their peers, all while instilling a healthy social adaption that is required of any adult. Perhaps you moved to the East side of Madison?

  18. car buying guide
    car buying guide says:

    I though I wanted to live in hong Kong and so worked my way into a six month placement with my firms office there. Boy was I glad I didn’t make the move permanently…I would have been made bankrupt by the property prices alone eek!

  19. Home Typing Jobs
    Home Typing Jobs says:

    Great tips! You know I always wanted to move from Texas to Japan. I love the lifestyle out there and I hear the food is great. The only thing is friends. And, I’m pretty sure If i decided to relocate, I’d have to learn Japanese. Which is not a problem because I planned on learning it anyways.

    Thanks for sharing. ;-)

  20. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I think it’s also important for someone with Asperger’s to consider the visual landscape of a place before making the move. This never crossed my mind when I moved from Ohio (read: Appalachia) to Phoenix a couple of years ago, and I immediately found Phoenix visually exhausting. Everything is the same shade of desert-dust brown, and because the land is so flat, the city is laid out in a near perfect grid where every street corner looks the same. Can you imagine left-right dyslexia in a city where every block looks identical? I couldn’t believe how stressful that was.

    Now I live in a place in the Caribbean where there is no consistent signage on anything, so I spend all my time worrying about looking insane wandering around in circles because, you know, everyone else is paying so much attention to what I’m doing (*sarcasm*), and because striking up a random conversation with a complete stranger is just not happening because I can’t grasp the social protocols around that one.

    Oh, how I long for a city with a diverse, tidy landscape and consistent, visually uncluttered signage! I think I would feel much calmer there.

  21. Riel
    Riel says:

    I’ll add two more issue that I’m considering in my move:

    Allergies (hay fever)

    we are so ignorant about this topic that we have not even started asking the questions: what am I allergic to and how much of it is in the air where I live and work?

    Although there are some people doing research, it’s at a macro level. People get allergic at a micro level.

    For example, I’m allergic to fruitless mulberry tree pollen. For 3 weeks each year in Las Vegas, I would get sick like I have the flu. I moved to a higher elevation in Las Vegas and newer part of town where fruitless mullberry trees did not exist because they have been outlawed. My allergies went away 100%.

    Blue Zones has suggested that people are healthier where they actually do physical stuff, like walking. Unfortunately the best places to walk are big cities, which also tend to have more air pollution which causes asthma.

    It’s a tough decision. If you want to be eco-friendly and live in a walkable community, you need to go urban.

    Just sharing.

  22. Laura Annerley
    Laura Annerley says:

    That’s interesting, but it seems like a bit of a stoic way to decide where to live, to me. I’m a Gen-Y and a theatre person, though, so I suppose I’m following pure intuition when I know that I want to move to the big cities with big arts and cultural circles.

    That’s another thing, you didn’t really mention the culture of the place as a factor. Any reason for that?

    Cheers :)

  23. jacob
    jacob says:

    “People often relocate thinking if they’re not happy in one place, they will be able to find happiness in another, not realizing that we all carry the true causes of our happiness and unhappiness inside us and in one way or another tend to recreate the same life circumstances wherever we go.”

    very well said, alex!

  24. Debbie Ashmore
    Debbie Ashmore says:

    Yes, agree that (for me) I MUST be in an area where I can leave the car behind and walk to the shops, cafe, transport, etc. I hate having to get the car out every time I leave the house.

  25. Toena Ils
    Toena Ils says:

    I love the mountains too but not too high or too close. I reckon about 600 ft above sea level is plenty and I like to be looking at the mountains from a couple’a miles away – far enough so they get the ‘purple majesty’ appearance. Too Specific? :-)

  26. Liz
    Liz says:

    Thanks you, Thank you! I appreciate your insights into this. Your points, reaffirm my thoughts. This topic has been weighing me down, wondering if I should make some drastic changes. It looks like I am where I am supposed to be.

  27. Nancee
    Nancee says:

    No, I don’t agree that you can be happy (content is a better word) anywhere–that it’s purely an “inside job.” I know the deep south would not work for me in any way, shape or form. You live where people mirror some of what’s inside of you. Maybe a way to get validated and to feel you belong somewhere. To quench that existential void that we all have–closer to the surface than we think maybe.
    I’m in Phoenix now and loved in originally, when it was “smaller” but it has since morphed into something different.ANd, maybe I’ve morphed,too. I changed a lot through the years and always needed a new place to grow in. But, now I’m looking for a real home, not a train station state where you wave to the passerbyers. Back to the East coast, I’m hoping…

  28. Dustin
    Dustin says:

    I think it depends on what you’ve grown up around, too. If you aren’t used to having a large family around you, then moving for a job is probably not a stretch; on the other hand, having a strong base of family and friends is often worth more to someone than a potential increase in income. I think it comes down to what makes you happiest.

  29. George
    George says:

    This is all a profile of self indulgence and indifference. “Crap schools” does not signify problems “underneath” the surface. A failing school system is the single greatest problem of a community. If this doesn’t challenge you to improve it where you live with it, you are no help.

  30. Broker
    Broker says:

    Although the post is pretty old it still relevant to date. I am in the process of relocating to a completely new city and am trying to do enough research on various communities. The internet has some great websites that will help you make the right decisions, but displaying neighborhood date, crime rates and school rankings to assist you in your move.

  31. Eva Baker
    Eva Baker says:

    I agree on all points. But the one about water almost made me laugh because I feel very strongly about this, and thought I was a freak. I grew up in towns bordering on Lake Ontario, and have since moved to a small town with only a small lake and a river… neither of which are easy to spend time around (Lake Ontario has countless parks, beaches, and amenities around it – piers, splash pads, restaurants. The lake and river here barely have accessible shoreline. I was thrilled this summer when I finally spotted a vantage point where my toddler could throw rocks into the water.)

    We plan to relocate someday and although it won’t be back to any place on Lake Ontario, having an accessible body of water around which the town took shape is a MAJOR REQUIREMENT. I love a cafe on the waterside, a place for my kids to go swimming, and things like the sun setting on the water. This stuff feeds my soul.

  32. suzann
    suzann says:

    HELP! I am a 43 single mother of 3 daughters–18, 15, 10. After 20 years of marriage and life in public office–I found out that my ex had been having homosexual affairs for years. Now he is even under investigation by the State Auditor, District Attorney and FBI for misuse of city funds–he is the mayor. I currently teach high school consumer sciences–but I have an extremely outgoing personality. My girls and I need a fresh start—REALLY BAD!! I would like to live near the ocean. I am completely terrified and need help figuring out how to re-create me and my family.

  33. Biron C
    Biron C says:

    I always have a tendency to live near water, because that’s what I’m accustomed to. But I’m honestly surprised to find that actual research shows that this is more common to be happy in these locations.

    I guess I’ll think twice before moving inland in the future, even for a great job opportunity.

    Most of the earth’s population lives next to a body of water, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

  34. BARB
    BARB says:

    My husband and I are looking to move from Maryland to a warmer place. The main reason is for health. I get major depression in the fall and winter months. And the warmth helps my body with arthritis, joint pains and other pain after 15 surgeries. My dr even suggested moving to a warmer state. We do not know how to take the first step, she we rent for a couple of months to check out the area. Maybe drive a rv to check out certain areas. We own our house are we are both retired

  35. BARB
    BARB says:

    My husband and I are looking to move from Maryland to a warmer place. The main reason is for health. I get major depression in the fall and winter months. And the warmth helps my body with arthritis, joint pains and other pain after 15 surgeries. My dr even suggested moving to a warmer state. We do not know how to take the first step, she we rent for a couple of months to check out the area. Maybe drive a rv to check out certain areas. We own our house are we are both retired so we have nothing but time. Any suggestions?

  36. bluefunk
    bluefunk says:

    …and you need to have a little more money than your friends do in order to feel financially secure…..cough :P

    one place would not want to live :)

    cool article, all the best

  37. Frank Joelsson
    Frank Joelsson says:

    I don’t know where to live anymore. My family and all my old school childhood friends live in Finland. And I am most happy to be in Finland.
    But I feel like the land of opportunity is Sweden if we compare these two countries. I want to live in Sweden, cause it feels like there is more to offer when it comes to jobs, people, finding a woman for a serious relationship and everything else. But Sweden doesn’t have the 19 years of life I built up in Finland before I moved to Sweden to start a new life. So I miss everybody in Finland, but I miss the land Sweden itself. I feel less happy in Sweden when I’m not with the people I love the most, and they love me, but in Sweden I see the opportunities skyrocked all the time. I can achieve my dreams better there, but I am all the time sad there cause I don’t really have people who love me the way they do in Finland. So I’m in a complete dilemma, I don’t know where to stay anymore. Cause either way I will hurt some people. And I will hurt myself even more no matter where I choose to stay. It feels like I am always in the middle of everything and people are pulling me from all directions like a little play toy. I don’t know what do to anymore, where to stay, or where I even belong anymore. I’m very sad about this situation. I feel like I’m falling into a deep black hole, deeper and deeper.

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