Psychology debunks the idea that we’d be happier if we lived somewhere else

Nice place to visit, but do you really want to live there?
Nice place to visit, but do you really want to live there?
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
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Virtually every time I travel to a new place, I find myself fantasizing about starting over there. Mostly the feeling sneaks up on me, as it did this summer while I walked on a coastal trail above the Pacific Ocean in Victoria, Canada. Wandering past giddy children and guitar-strumming buskers and off-leash dogs that never barked, I felt the stirrings of place lust in my chest.

In Victoria’s Cook Street neighborhood, the urge intensified. Every Craftsman bungalow was Pinterest-level adorable. Laughter and pizza smells spilled from the open windows of restaurants. The cars (mostly Priuses) seemed to brake at crosswalks even before I knew I wanted to cross the street. I could live here, I thought, snapping photos of “for sale” signs so I could consult the real estate listings later.

I feel hypocritical confessing this, given that I just wrote a book in praise of committing to your hometown. And yet there it is. Hard as I’ve tried, I can’t seem to shake the idea of the geographic cure—the promise that picking up and moving to a new place will change my life for the better.

By better, I mostly mean different. For the 12% of Americans who move each year, perhaps the most intoxicating thing about settling in a new place is our newness in it. In our current town or city, we often feel that we know how our story has turned out. The job that would be great, but for a psychotic boss. The neighbor whose dachshund barks only between 2 and 6 am; the coffee shops that close before dark. Living in any town long enough makes you intimate with its weaknesses, much in the way you discover your partner’s grotesque nose-hair grooming habits only after you’ve moved in together.

A new city, meanwhile, is the geographic version of a crush, enticing and full of untested promise. So we wind up believing that the simplest way to get a fresh start is to pick up and move to a new place, where we might find a more challenging job, get out of debt, start dating a nicer boyfriend, take up yoga and finally begin self-actualizing.

There is a tiny grain of truth to the myth of the geographic cure. Living in a new city will, inevitably, change your life. When I moved from Ames, Iowa, to Austin, Texas, many of the identifying features of my life changed too—from how I spent my free time to what I ate (because, come on, Tex-Mex). As Gretchen Rubin points out, the flux of moving makes all kinds of major habit shifts, like losing weight or quitting smoking, easier—perhaps because, psychologically, moving makes us feel like we’re embarking on a personal do-over.

And while to some degree your happiness in a given city is largely the product of your perception, there are indeed measurable differences between places when it comes to factors like cost of living, weather or demographics. If you land in a new city that better meets your needs, there’s every possibility you’ll feel at least marginally happier.

And yet there are some big problems with the geographic cure—starting with the fact that we tend to overestimate how happy we’ll be in a new environment. In one study, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, found that Midwesterners expected residents of Southern California to be happier with the place where they lived, especially because of the climate and cultural opportunities. In reality, both groups ranked themselves the same in overall life satisfaction.

What gives? Kahneman says a “focusing illusion” makes students think easily observable differences between places (like better produce or proximity to the ocean) will matter more than they do in reality. The pleasure of hedonism can also wear off after a little while. Living in California sunshine could cheer a winter-weary Minnesotan at first. But after two years, the excitement starts to fade, and the Minnesotan might even find herself missing the snow.

Another issue is that moving is associated with lower levels of overall well-being, higher stress levels, and fewer positive social relationships. Frequent moves have a particularly detrimental effect for adolescents, who’ve been shown to have lower test scores and graduation rates, fewer friends, and higher drug and alcohol use.

So while it’s true that the geographic cure seems to offer us an easy exit from all our nagging problems, it also scrubs us of our social capital—those close relationships and loose ties that scholars have found make us happy. It breaks the trust, credibility, and social cohesion we’ve accumulated over the years with our neighbors, a relationship that has been linked to major health benefits, including fewer heart attacks. And it could keep us from enjoying the greater friendliness and community-mindedness of a town whose residents have lived there a while.

There’s no doubt that staying put is completely unsexy. And yet it takes time for place attachment—the feeling of being at home and emotionally bonded with the place where we live—to develop. We short-circuit all that when we uproot ourselves in search of a better life.

I can tell you this because I’ve fallen for the myth of the geographic cure multiple times myself. We’re on our fifth state now, and each time I’ve been filled with so much hope about the new city—thrilled to imagine how everything will be different now.

Hope is good. But action is better. So the next time you travel to a tempting new destination, think about what it is that appeals to you so much about the place, and channel your wanderlust into efforts to find the same qualities within your hometown. If you can’t get over how beautiful nature is when you’re on vacation, maybe you just need to schedule more local campouts into your weekends. If you spend 70% of your vacation Yelping the next meal, become a food booster in your hometown by trying every restaurant and shouting out your favorites online.

And if you do move, commit to your new town as fiercely as you can. But don’t expect it to fix you. Even the healing power of pizza smells can only do so much.