I always thought leaving New York City would be good for me because when you live there, the push to get the best of everything is very strong. New Yorkers are maximizers, a term coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz for someone who is always thinking they can do better. These people are generally unhappy.

There’s a spectrum, for sure. But if maximizing were a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest in NYC everyone is in the 6-10 range. And the 6s think they’re really laid back. I wanted to be in the 1-5 range, where research shows that people lead much happier lives.

I knew I’d need to leave New York City to do that. In Madison, WI, I have to admit, I remained a maximizer. I got a lawyer from Chicago to sue the schools for their incredibly poor compliance with IDEA. I flew to LA for haircuts. I refused to stop flying American Airlines even though smaller, scrappy airlines had more flexible schedules out of Wisconsin.

But the truth is that you do become who you live with, and the maximizer is slowly being knocked out of me. Which has been my goal all along. Research shows that people are happier in rural towns than in cities, primarily because there is no way to be an maximizer. (I have argued before, many times, that people who live in cities don’t care about happiness, so it doesn’t matter that they are not happy.)

In the maximizer world, I live in the 1-5 range right now. Where I live I look like a crazy maximizer, because everyone here is a 1-5 and I’m a 5. When I visit my friends in New York City, I seem a little bit off.

The best way to see myself in relation to city people is to recall common conversations. Here are questions that city people ask me all the time:

1. Do you have real animals?
I could answer this question a million ways and the city person would get no information. For example, I can say, “yes, sheep, pigs, cows, chicken.” You don’t know how many. I could have 100,000 chickens and two lambs for example. Also, you don’t know what kind. I could have wool sheep or dairy sheep, I could have meat cows or dairy cows. So it’s a question that has no answer. I say yes.

2. Do the pigs smell bad?
This is always the followup question to the more general animal question. People want to talk about how bad the pigs smell. City people love talking about manure. They think it’s funny. It’s like Captain Underpants—The Adult Version. But if someone chooses to live on a pig farm, they are obviously not bothered by the pig smell. And probably, a pig farmer looks at pigs and things they’re cute:

So asking about the pig smell would be like me saying to a New Yorker: “Does the noise bother you?” Of course it doesn’t—they live in NYC.

3. How are the schools?
Bad. The answer is bad. Because a city person is not asking while placing their kids in one of those high schools with a 48% dropout rate. People ask this question while walking through their suburban sprawl kitchen into their media room. And the tax base they create with this house makes the tax base of a rural farm community seem like a third-world country. So, it’s true, the schools are not good. But there’s a price you pay no matter where you live. The corollary would be, “Do you live next door to Central Park?” No. Of course you don’t. You gave up living near nature in order to live in the inherent excitement of NYC in a place you can afford.

4. Do you want to go out for dinner?
No. That’s why I live in the country. There is nowhere to go that is as good as my house. And we grow our own food. And we eat at 5pm so don’t ask me at 5pm if I want to go out. Dinner is already made.

5. How many bedrooms?
This is the question that follows, “I got married and moved to the farmhouse with my kids.” A New Yorker thinks, “Upstate NYC with a dining room to serve 50 people plus the photographers from Country Living magazine to document it.” Newsflash: Real farm houses are small because they are heated with either gas, which is very expensive for a farm, or with wood, and no one wants to have to chop the wood for a fifteen room house.

I have found that the biggest cultural gap between rural life and city life has been the maximizer mindset. To a maximizer, a rural person looks stupid, or delusional. And to a rural person, the city person looks insecure and uptight. Both assessments are right, really. But I have found that it’s more interesting to try to understand both sides than criticize both sides.

It’s easy to criticize someone else for having no clue about diversity. It’s hard to really spend time understanding someone else’s situation in order to see the gaps between you and that person. Really understanding cultural diversity is really understanding the gaps. And in those gaps is where you gain a better understanding of yourself.

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  1. Roberta
    Roberta says:

    I just came to this website after reading a NY Times article about Tim Ferriss and jumping around a bit.

    I live in Brooklyn, NYC and I’d say I’m a 3 or 4, max, on the 1-10 scale. I’ve raised my kid, now 16, here and I think it’s the best place for a teenager–she takes the subway to get around, won’t be able to drive until she’s 18, goes to a diverse school–really world-wide diverse. She’s told me that she doesn’t understand why people want to live in the country. Of course maybe that will change but so far so good here in Brooklyn.

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