Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily


A year ago today, I was pack­ing up my Cam­bridge apart­ment a stone’s throw from Har­vard Square and prepar­ing to return to Northamp­ton, the bucolic west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts col­lege town where I’d pre­vi­ously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cam­bridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the sto­ried edu­ca­tional mecca, home to Har­vard, MIT, and count­less bril­liant minds. I’d been there twice as a stu­dent. This time I was back for a job at Har­vard Law School, where I ulti­mately wound up writ­ing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some rea­son my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being sin­gle, my friends have always been espe­cially impor­tant to me, and not hav­ing any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fair­ness, by the time I moved, I’d man­age to col­lect a hand­ful of inti­mates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty pal­try.  Was it me? I won­dered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and my Har­vard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong pro­fes­sional net­work in the Boston area, and even with the Great Reces­sion upon us, the region’s job mar­ket was still rel­a­tively robust (at least com­pared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up free­lance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pin­ing to return to west­ern Mass. While I’d last lived in Northamp­ton a decade before, I’d made fre­quent trips back to see friends, and I loved my week­end vis­its. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Mak­ing a move wouldn’t change any of the very real dif­fi­cul­ties fac­ing me. I’d still be job­less, look­ing for work, still finan­cially strained. I’d still be sin­gle (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from expe­ri­ence that just because I thought a change would make my life bet­ter didn’t mean that it would. Psy­chol­o­gists have a fancy name for this—affec­tive fore­cast­ing error—the idea being that we humans are noto­ri­ously poor pre­dic­tors of what will make us happy.

Wher­ever you go there you are. The say­ing stuck in my mind. Every­one knows that you can’t change your life by sim­ply chang­ing your surroundings–and lest you have any lin­ger­ing doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that peo­ple who believed they would be hap­pier liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia actu­ally would not be. I couldn’t help but sus­pect that Northamp­ton might be my per­sonal Cal­i­for­nia (albeit a far chill­ier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhap­pi­ness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encour­aged to find some sup­port for this notion in jour­nal­ist Mal­colm Gladwell’s Out­liers: The Story of Suc­cess. There, Glad­well recounts the story of Roseto, Penn­syl­va­nia, a bustling self-sufficient town estab­lished in the nine­teenth cen­tury by immi­grants from a sin­gle Ital­ian vil­lage. In the 1950s, a physi­cian dis­cov­ered that the town’s res­i­dents enjoyed aston­ish­ingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart dis­ease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After sig­nif­i­cant research aimed at con­trol­ling for variables–diet, genet­ics, exercise–researchers con­cluded that, remark­ably enough, res­i­dents’ health could be traced to noth­ing more than the fab­ric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasp­ing at straws, but this seemed promis­ing. It seemed to sug­gest that while “mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia” might not in itself boost hap­pi­ness, the sense of belong­ing to a vibrant com­mu­nity could have a pro­found impact. The more I thought about it, the more con­vinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be hap­pier in a place that I knew and loved, sur­rounded by peo­ple I cared about and who cared about me?

More­over, I was able to gar­ner research to back me up. Again and again, close rela­tion­ships with fam­ily and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven pre­dic­tors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniver­sary in Northamp­ton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far hap­pier than I was before. While the move cer­tainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still look­ing for work, still look­ing for love—I’m deeply grate­ful for my life here. Along with the wel­come infu­sion of human warmth and con­nec­tion, I cher­ish the tex­ture of daily life: stop­ping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, play­ing board games with my friends’ kids, work­ing with Friends of Chil­dren and Tree­house, local orga­ni­za­tions doing cutting-edge work aimed at trans­form­ing the nation’s fos­ter care sys­tem. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Chang­ing your sur­round­ings won’t nec­es­sar­ily change your life. But then again: It might.

© 2011 — 2013, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

  1. I para­phrased this post for my mother recently, who is con­sid­er­ing mov­ing (again). It makes a firm argu­ment that relo­cat­ing can be fulfilling.

    Hope your search for a new place to live has been fruitful.

  2. I am def­i­nitely poor at fore­cast­ing what will make me happy. Over the years, I made moves for jobs and didn’t want to leave where I was. Yet each move has proved to be won­der­ful and incred­i­bly enrich­ing. That said, I still miss my Noho com­mu­nity, but at least I still have it on FB and it’s not so far away that I can’t visit. Com­mu­nity is very impor­tant to hap­pi­ness, I think!

  3. So glad you are a devi­a­tion from affec­tive fore­cast­ing, and s glad to have you in my life.

  4. Amy — I’m so glad you have found a com­mu­nity in Northamp­ton! Cam­bridge and Boston are tough, brainy and some­times dis­tant places. Keep on reach­ing out. Margie

  5. Well, you know how I feel about mov­ing! Sure, there’s no guar­anty that mov­ing will make you hap­pier. But if you’re not happy where you are, change is good thing. If noth­ing else, you can at least feel good about being proac­tive, and your prob­lems will be dif­fer­ent. I always like to diver­sify my mis­ery portfolio.

  6. Per­son­ally, I think there’s some­thing weirdly unpleas­ant about Boston (and, by exten­sion, Cam­bridge). I spent a year there and was mis­er­able. It’s very hard to meet peo­ple, which is sur­pris­ing given all the the­o­ret­i­cally inter­est­ing, smart peo­ple around. But, after a year, I hadn’t made a sin­gle friend.

    Hav­ing moved to Cal­i­for­nia, I make new friends all the time!

    Peo­ple might not be per­fect pre­dic­tors of what will make them happy, but place def­i­nitely mat­ters. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s hav­ing like-minded peo­ple around, but where you choose to live can make a huge dif­fer­ence in your qual­ity of life!

    • That was pretty much exactly my expe­ri­ence, Alison–complete with the accom­pa­ny­ing thought process. So glad you are happy in California!

  7. I’m really intrigued by the sense of place and why some seem to feel so good and how it seems you can’t make the wrong place work no mat­ter what you do. I think it is even big­ger than the smalltown/city dif­fer­ence. A few years ago, I thought I wanted to put down roots in New Mex­ico. I was on the out­skirts of Santa Fe in a smaller town.

    I reg­is­tered to vote, got a dri­vers license, started try­ing to cre­ate a com­mu­nity of inti­mates. I had one night­mare expe­ri­ence after another: par­ties that I com­pared to hell, friend of friend con­nec­tions that never led to promised lunches, and old friends who were in town and some­how for­got to call me until I moved away. The harder I tried, the more iso­lated I felt. It was a stark con­trast to any­where I had ever lived before.

    A few years later, I was house-sitting in Man­i­tou Springs, Col­orado, a small town out­side of Col­orado Springs. Every time I turned around, I was meet­ing another inter­est­ing per­son. In two weeks, I felt like I was part of the town. I’m seri­ously con­sid­er­ing mov­ing there.

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