Plan B Nation on vacation

Main lakeA few weeks back, it hit me that I’m trying to do too much—especially given that I’m happiest with a good bit of downtime. How to reconcile Type A tendencies with my need for a balanced life? It came to me, a strategy: “Seven things in seven hours.” Rather than cramming weekend days with endless to-do list items, I’d limit myself to one per hour. I’d be selective, strategic.

But when I sat down to make a list, that’s not what I wrote. Instead of typing the word “things,” I typed the word “days.”Seven days in seven hours. I had to laugh. It so exactly captured the absurdity of what I’ve been trying to do.

BananagramsWhich goes to explain why Plan B Nation is on extended vacation. When I took a week off from my Harvard communications jobs last month, I’d planned to spend a lot of it catching up on blogging. Luckily, I quickly determined that this was a bad idea. Instead, I visited Polly in Maine and pretty much took it easy. Bananagrams, dogs, kids, long walks, books—that’s pretty much what my vacation looked like.

Then last week, without quite meaning to, I went on a writing bender, resulting in two pieces that went live yesterday. Along with my Atlantic debut—a piece on women and drinking (including my personal take on AA)—I also wrote about so-called “slash careers” on the Cognoscenti blog. Lawyer/writer, minister/physician–you get the idea. It’s a piece I’d had in the pipeline for quite some time, and it felt great to finally get it out of my head and onto the web.

Seven things in seven hours. Clearly, my efforts to pare down are a work in progress. There are so many things I want to write, and far too little time. But if I’m still taking on too much, I’m also taking breaks. This afternoon, I got a massage. Tomorrow I have yoga. And as soon I get this post up, I’ll be watching House of Cards.

dogs in maine

 

 

 

 

Gratitude for what I have – and also for what I did not

Vintage Thanksgiving Day Postcard

This has been a year of big changes for me, most of them for the good. After three years of under and unemployment, I rejoined the workforce this September in a full-time job that, I’m happy to say, seems to be going quite well. While I miss the daily rural beauty of western Mass, I’m also deriving real (if surprising) pleasure from being back in a city. Plus friends and a weekly UMass Amherst teaching gig still draw me back on a regular basis.

My situation at this time last year was very different – as reflected in the title of last year’s holiday post: Thanksgiving in Plan B Nation (or how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful). I had just started this blog – that post was its fifth – and was still having a hard time making sense of my life’s trajectory. I’m doing what? I’m living where? All that work, all those credentials, and I’ve ended up here?

This year, I have no trouble tapping into gratitude: Work, friends, writing, home – all of it, right at the moment, feels pretty good, a testament to how suddenly life can turn around.

But along with these obvious reasons, I’m grateful for something more: I’m grateful both for what I have now and for what I didn’t have then.

I’m grateful for how this time in the jobs wilderness forced me to expand my sense of who I am apart from my credentials.

I’m grateful for the ways it led me to become braver as a writer – to take risks that I likely wouldn’t otherwise have taken.

I’m grateful for this blog and other writing opportunities – for the intellectual sustenance, support, and friendships, connections that I am taking with me into this next stage of life.

I’m grateful for having had a chance to move to the country and deepen my ties to a part of the world I love.

I’m grateful for the ways this stretch of life fostered greater compassion for millions of people struggling for reasons that are often largely (or entirely) beyond their control.

And most of all, I’m grateful for the fact that I can feel grateful – for the fact that I had the resources to navigate these challenges without being crushed by them. In that, I was very, very lucky. Many, of course, are not.  As I look to the future in Plan B Nation, gratitude strikes me as an excellent foundation for thinking about how to change this.

Poultry vs. Prada

As perhaps you’ve heard—because, really, I won’t shut up about it—I have a new purse.  It’s made of rubber and looks pretty much exactly like a chicken. It cost $34.99 on Amazon.com.

The last time I was this excited about a purse was more than a decade ago. I was living in Manhattan, and the purse was Prada. It cost something in the range of $500, and I did not buy it on Amazon.com.

This realization got me thinking once again about the ways my life has evolved since moving back to western Massachusetts a year and a half ago. In particular, I’ve been reflecting on the key role of “reference groups” in shaping consumption patterns.

I first came across this term in sociologist Juliet B. Schor’s The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need while researching an essay for SecondAct on The Secret to Living Well on Less. As Schor explains it, we tend to compare our own lifestyles and possessions “to those of a select group of people we respect and want to be like, people whose sense of what’s important in life seems close to our own.” This is our reference group, and it’s malleable. It shifts over time and depending on life circumstances.

Not surprisingly, my Manhattan reference group was way different from my reference group in a college town smack in the heart of what’s often dryly referred to as The Happy Valley.  And if that’s not a clear enough explanation, consider this socio-cultural map of Massachusetts. (N.B. We are the bright pink sector.)

Image credit: The AwesomeBoston.com

As I wrote in my living-well-on-less essay, the fact that I’m spending far less money these days isn’t because I’m now a “better” or less materialistic person. What’s changed isn’t the core of who I am. What’s changed is who I hang out with.

But while I may not be a better person, I do have a better life. And by “better” I mean more in sync with things that really matter—the things that really make me happy.  By way of illustration, I offer the following comparison:

What I Got out of My Prada Handbag

I do not love shopping, and for this reason, it was great to have a single item that, by dint of simply carrying it, would take me pretty much anywhere. In 1990s New York, the uniform of black Prada purse, black dress, black boots saved me countless hours of boredom in our finer retail establishments and, despite the hefty price tag The Purse carried, it likely ended up saving me money given the alternatives.

Plus, it was, in some strange way, like being part of a club—or at least putting in an application.  As I recall—and it’s getting a bit hazy now—such accessories were popular at the time in the NYC publishing world, and while I was still practicing law, I wanted to be writer. I can’t say that the purse helped me write, but it symbolized the intention, and in this way, it may have helped just a bit in keeping the dream alive.

What I Get out of My (Non-Prada) Henbag

I make people smile. And laugh! They stop me on the street and say: I LOVE YOUR PURSE! WHERE DID YOU GET IT? Then we chat for a bit. They tell me why they love the purse—about their friend who has chickens or their own chickens or how much better fresh eggs are than the ones you buy at the supermarket (true), and then we smile and move on, but it’s sort of like I have a new friend somewhere.

When I meet someone who loves the chicken purse, I also know I’ve met someone with whom I’ll likely share other common ground. Carrying the chicken purse is like walking a puppy. Like it or not (and I do), I’m going to end up more connected than I was when I left my house that morning.

As go my purses, so goes my life.

The other day I bumped into a friend on Main Street, and after showing off the new henbag, I launched into a disquisition on my Poultry vs. Prada musings. I could tell he couldn’t fathom the notion of spending hundreds of dollars on a pocketbook. But rather than saying so, he simply observed, “I think you’re heading in the right direction.”

The neighbors

 

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

[Bint.3♥♪♫]

Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniversary of my exit from the salaried workforce and my entry into what I’ve taken to calling Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Harvard Law School, where I’d handled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Washington, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplomatically, not an easy time. The economy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I mention the Great Recession?) Floundering in spring 2009 put me in excellent company. Yes, I was freaked out and unemployed, but I certainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the road I’ve traveled since those anxiety-ridden days and feeling a lot of compassion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been thinking about what I’ve learned and what might be worth sharing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Transitions take a long time.  

I’ve written about this before, and it’s a really important point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life accident.”  Five to seven years is common.  A related point: Transitions tend to meander—to be less like ladders and more like the classic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the center, almost arrive, and then suddenly find yourself on the outer rim, and then, just as unpredictably, back at the center again. I often find it helpful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Sometimes the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leaving the Boston area for more than a year on the theory that wherever you go, there you are. Could moving to another place really make me happier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequivocal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that moving to an area that I love is probably the single most important step I’ve taken to move my life forward.  In particular, moving to a place where I have a strong network of friends has made everything far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start moving anyway.

Transitions, by their nature, generally involve a temporary loss of clear inner direction.  That was certainly the case for me: I was searching without really knowing what I was looking for (which, not surprisingly, made it really hard to find).

Looking back, one of the most useful things I did during this time was to take action even if nothing felt quite right—to experiment, try things out. That’s how I came (lackadaisically, glumly) to write my very first personal essay—which led to a blog on Huffington Post, which led to writing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writing for SecondAct (including Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly column), Psychology Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remarkably enough, actually does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across similar advice in books by career guru Barbara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. “You won’t encounter accidental good fortune—you won’t stumble on opportunities that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoffman writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do something you stir the pot and introduce the possibility that seemingly random ideas, people, and places will collide and form new combinations and opportunities.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mindfulness by now, but this quality doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psychology professor Kristin Neff is a pioneering researcher on this topic, and her book Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind is geared to a popular audience and provides an excellent roadmap for further exploration.

5.  Let yourself be surprised.

The biggest difference between lucky and unlucky people may be that lucky people are open to seeing the unexpected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expanding your peripheral vision can do a lot to expand your opportunities.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to consciously expect the unexpected. (Most recent example: I’m about to go off to look at a potential new home that I discovered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far better than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both meaningful and creative. I have a great community in a place where I love living. The road I’ve traveled to get here was pretty remarkably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did something wrong. It simply tells me that I’m human.

In praise of erring

Guiding Light

I was hanging out at Sip yesterday, doing my usual thing: Getting a little writing done, drinking a lot of coffee.

But as I worked (and sipped) I found myself distracted by two young women a few tables away. It’s not that they were loud, it’s that they were interesting.  At first, I just thought (as I often do) what a great town this is!  From there, it was a quick leap to “You know what? I’d like to meet them.”

A quick leap in my mind, but an awkward one to enact. This is what I thought as I fingered two business cards I’d pulled from my bag and contemplated next steps. For a few minutes more, I went back and forth. And then: I just did it.

I approached their table, smiling. Cautious smiles in response. I blathered something about how I couldn’t help but overhear—and I knew that this must seem sort of strange—but that they just sounded so interesting that I’d decided to say Hi!

And you know what? They were lovely. Exactly like they’d sounded.

Not surprisingly, this being the town that it is, we already shared friends. Kate co-owns the vibrant Impish, a “mischievously playful” Northampton children’s store that I’ve visited with my friend Sarah, whom Kate also knows.  Fran is a former business law student of my professor friend Jennifer and about to begin a new job on Maine’s  same-sex marriage campaign. (I knew they were interesting!)

My friend Naomi quotes her mother as saying “Always err on the side of generosity.” This encounter got me to thinking how the same could just as well be said about human connection.

There are many times when the “right” course of action isn’t totally clear. If we’re going to over-steer, in which direction should we risk erring?

Always steering towards human connection strikes me as a good default rule.  And I say this not just because it sounds good but for very practical reasons.

Looking back, I see that, time and again, the choice to connect has enriched my life in many and various ways. No, not each and every time but more often than you might think.

A couple of recent examples relating to this blog:

After writing about celebrity blogger Penelope Trunk, I tweeted the post to her on a lark. To my surprise (and delight) she read it and left a lovely comment, which lifted my spirits on a day that my spirits needed lifting.

More recently, I wrote the (tongue-in-cheek) post “I Should Be You” about The Fluent Self’s magical Havi Brooks, and once again, sent it on with no real expectation of response. When she linked to the post, it resulted in my blog’s highest traffic-ever day—and, in the process, connected me with a bunch of really wonderful people.

I’ve also gained a lot from being on the other side of the equation–the person being connected to rather than the connector. The fact that I’m living in this town at all is largely due to the fact that the aforementioned Jennifer (my law school classmate) wrote me a warm congratulatory note after my first novel came out. We’d been friendly but not really “friends” before—and out of touch for years. Today, much of the good in my life can be traced to that out-of-the-blue email.

Another reminder came this week via writer Carolyn Nash (a pen name), who’d read that I work with foster kids and left a comment on my blog offering to send a copy of Raising Abel, her foster care memoir. As it happened, I’d already heard about the book on Workstew and been meaning to find it. (“A woman of remarkable resourcefulness single-handedly raises a troubled child all the way to manhood in this intimate and inspiring blog-to-book memoir,” is how Kirkus Reviews describes it.)  I told her I was eager to read it. And I’m already writing about it.

Of course, not all attempts to connect will yield the hoped-for connections. In another life, when I was writing thrillers, I mustered up my courage, and placed a call to someone I’d been friendly with in college, who sometimes reviewed books. I caught her at a bad time. She was icy. The call ended quickly. I felt terrible.

Thinking about this phone call now—still clear in my mind after all this years—it occurs to me that it’s an excellent example of the human “negativity bias.”  As described by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Hanson, our brains are “Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” This is because our brains evolved to keep us from getting eaten, not with the goal of assuring that we live happy and pleasant lives. As Hanson sees it, we need to do what we can to push back this tendency.

For me, choosing connection is one way to do this. Life is full of risks, and the choices we make on any given day won’t always leave us delighted. But by erring on the side of human connection, I’m pretty sure we raise our odds.

Why Newt Gingrich is my new role model

Newt Gingrich  For President 2012

While I’d never in a zillion years vote for Newt Gingrich, I’m awestruck—and more than a little inspired—by his seemingly limitless capacity to bounce back from defeat.

I mean, think about it: This is a guy who not-so-long-ago was dubbed the most hated man in America, the only house speaker ever to be sanctioned by its members.  As recently as last month, his presidential campaign was floundering, polling in the single digits following his campaign staff’s mass exodus the previous June. Pundits pronounced game over.

And yet today, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, he is widely viewed as a frontrunner, playing hare to Mitt Romney’s tortoise as they vie for the lead in the Republican field.

Mulling over the latest Gingrich comeback, I couldn’t help comparing his Wile E. Coyote-esque resurgence to my own tendency to give up—sometimes even before I start.

One recent case in point: I almost didn’t start this blog. For one thing, I was convinced I’d start, and wouldn’t find any readers. This would be depressing and a little embarrassing.  I recalled the words of a college classmate now a famously successful (if curmudgeonly) writer: “You know the average number of readers of a blog? One!”  Who was I to think that I could add to the conversation?

This is not, to put it mildly, how Newt Gingrich thinks. Newt Gingrich is convinced that he has something to offer the world. And if you don’t agree with him, it’s your problem not his.

In fairness, this sort of against-the-odds confidence is far easier to come by if you’re a narcissist or a sociopath or trend towards bipolar mania. There’s a brilliant scene in Gary Trudeau’s presidential campaign mockumentary Tanner ’88 where a seasoned political reporter educates a younger colleague on this point. “We’re talking about someone who wants to be the most powerful person on the planet,” he says. “We’re not talking well balanced.”  (I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but you get the idea.)

That being said, those of us living in Plan B Nation have a special need for the sort of chutzpah demonstrated by Gingrich and his ilk. We live in an era where positive reinforcements are in increasingly short supply.  Perhaps for the first time ever, we’re facing repeated rejections and setbacks in our professional lives. We have to find ways to keep going when it feels more sensible to give up.

A primary goal of this blog is to identify concrete strategies that help us do just that. For me, a supportive community has been a big piece of this. I’ve also found it helps to make an effort to keep an open mind, to remind myself that I really don’t know where the events in my life are leading.

And now I have another strategy to add to my arsenal. The next time, I’m feeling like a failure, struggling to move on, I’m going to sit down and ask myself: “What would Newt Gingrich do?”

On life in a small town (plus a gratitude update)

“It’s like you took a big city, raptured up all the fun and interesting people, and then plopped them down in western Massachusetts.”

That’s how I recently described Northampton to a friend. It seemed an especially apt analogy, given that local boosters of my new hometown sometimes call it Paradise City.

Just before Thanksgiving I wrote about cultivating gratitude and that, while it’s never been my natural default mode, I planned to give it a shot. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve made a daily practice of listing at least three things that lifted my spirits that day, and while I’ve missed a day or two here and there, I’ve pretty much stuck with it.

While I can’t say the practice has changed my life, it does strike me as having had a subtle yet pervasive impact.  Buddhists often talk about the way we “incline” our minds: Are we training our minds to move towards happiness or towards suffering?  The daily gratitude practice seems to help with this.  Rather than scanning the day’s landscape for things likely to go wrong, I now tend to keep a mental eye out for things that are going right.

And of all the things going right in my life, I’m repeatedly reminded that this little town and its people are high on the list. The essay below explains way. It’s about a freak October snowstorm, a loaf of bread, and how friends make all the difference.  (A slightly abridged version previously appeared in our local paper, the Hampshire Gazette.)

It Takes a Village to Make a Loaf of Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread in the Happy Valley during a Time of Climate Change.

When the snow started to fall, I was playing a card game with the Baskinettes. Which isn’t really surprising, since this is how I’ve spent a good bit of the past year, something between an honorary aunt and slow-on-the-uptake peer.  (“I’m going to deal the cards instead of you. That way, it will be faster,” a seven-year-old Remy once airily informed me.)

“Do you think I should head home now?” I asked the Baskinettes’ father, aka my friend Hosie.  The snow was coming down faster, in huge wet clumped flakes.

Hosie looked out the window and shrugged. “I don’t think you have to rush.”

And indeed, he was right.  Back home a few hours later, safe and warm, I decided to do some baking. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make New York Times food guru Mark Bittman’s magical no-knead bread.  With 10 minutes or so of hands-on time for an artisan-quality loaf, it’s a recipe easy to love. The only challenge is finding the 14-hour window needed for the dough to rest. But I had plenty of time now. I expected a quiet weekend.

The dough was just starting to rise, when I got my first inkling my night might not go entirely according to plan.  My cell (only) phone rang (cricket chirped). It was the eldest of the Baskinettes, 16-year-old Ezekiel.

“We don’t have power.” The voice was aggrieved  “I’m. So. Bored.”

Still, freakish as this seemed—and by “this” I mean the weather, not teen protestations of boredom—I wasn’t all that worried. I live in a neighborhood where utility lines are safely lodged underground. We rarely lose power out here. Also: It’s October!  I glanced at a clock: almost time for bed.

Then everything went black.

No big deal, I thought philosophically. I’ll get a good night’s sleep.  Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have power back.

This did not happen.

When I got up the next day, it was really cold.  I flicked the light switch. No response.  No electricity meant no coffee. Something had to be done.

A Facebook friend once asked if the Happy Valley’s vaunted fashion laissez-faire extended to PJs as street wear. “Yes!” came the resounding response. “Totally!  Absolutely!”  It seemed that today was as good a day as any to put this to the test. I yanked on a fleece in the frigid air, grabbed my parka, slipped on boots. Keys. Purse. Money.

And then I remembered the bread.

There it was on the kitchen counter, waiting so patiently.  Heading out the door, I picked up the bowl and cradled it in my arms.

I never pick up hitchhikers, but this once, I made an exception for the bundled twenty-something figure trudging tiredly down Route 9.  He slid into the seat behind me, taking the bread in his lap, glad for the ride and seemingly unphased by his pajama-wearing dough-toting driver. He was bound for the Unitarian Church in town in hopes the service was still on.  We talked about The Great Gatsby, Faulkner and Willa Cather. Then I dropped him at the church and parked my car, my mind once again on coffee.

But while the mood on Main Street was strangely festive, not a store or café was open.  A flannel-clad me paused dejectedly. I was out of luck.  (On the upside, those Facebook friends were right. No one gave me a second glance.)

I love my town for lots of reasons, and one of them is this: When you show up unannounced on your friends’ doorstep, wearing pajamas and bearing dough, you’re likely to be greeted as if you’re paying a totally normal visit.  Once settled in at the breakfast table and fortified with black tea (no electricity meant no coffee grinder, no coffee grinder, no coffee), I explained to my friends Jen and Michael the purpose of my mission.  “I knew you had a gas stove,” I concluded. “So I thought I could bake it here.”  But a gas stove, yes. Gas oven, no.  Again, I was back to square one.

Happily, here in the Happy Valley, hope springs eternal.  A few hours later, up the street, back at the Baskinettes, I had the choice of two gas stoves—and yes, one of them even appeared to have a functioning gas-fueled oven. We set out on a rescue operation, the four Baskinettes and I, trekking back down the snowy hill to collect the dough from Jen and Michael’s.

So far so good.

But not so fast.

There comes a time in every endeavor when by far the most sensible option is simply to give up.  Our Bread Odyssey reached this point when we found, upon arriving home, that the oven on which we’d pinned our hopes was also out of commission.  Is it possible to fry yeast bread? To rig up a stove top oven?  We gave some half-hearted thought to these questions, but clearly we were losing steam.  And then, like some culinary deus ex machina, Hosie’s sister appeared.  Yes, Lucretia had a functioning oven, and yes she would take our bread.

That night, after a largely housebound day trending towards cabin fever, the Baskinettes and I set out on foot for the nearby college campus center, lured by the prospect of heat and light and maybe even vending machines.  It was just around 7:30, but it felt pretty much like midnight. Beneath a sharp white sliver of moon, our shoes crunched through snow.  Still, it was good to be outside, to breathe in the fresh night air.

Then, for a strange frozen moment, I saw us as if from a distance, characters in the opening scenes of a movie that wouldn’t end well. Isn’t this how they always start, those blockbuster disaster films?   An almost ordinary lovely day in an ordinary lovely town.   Kids, families, plans, friends—and then The Thing appears.  (Aliens, terrorists, viral pandemic—you can take your pick.)  At first, no one understands what it is they’re up against.  It’s just a slight cough, or a faint shadow. Or a snow storm in October.

We got power back the next day, two days earlier than predicted. All in all, we’d gotten off easy. Even the shrimp and ice cream in my freezer appeared to have survived the thaw.  Within hours, you could almost feel like everything was back to normal.  Almost but not quite.  Not if you surveyed the piles of tangled tree limbs, leaves green against improbable snow.  Not if you took some time to think about the next logical plot point.

I finally caught up with my bread again the following afternoon, now transmuted into a golden cornmeal-encrusted round.  “Was easy enough to bake but seems a little, uh, dense, which is likely because of the lack of warm rise,” Lucretia wrote me on Facebook.  And to sure, when I picked up the loaf, it did seem rather stone-like. But when I cut off a slice and took a hesitant bite, it was amazingly not-too-bad—especially if accompanied by a bit of homemade peach jam.

In the past few months, our little part of the world has endured its share of hardships: a tornado, a hurricane, and now a blizzard, not to mention the all-engulfing global economic maelstrom.  We live in strange and unsettling times. I know this is true. I also know that, whatever dangers we face, there is hope in our human connections. Together, we can grapple with climate change—or make a loaf of bread.  And if you’re going to face the apocalypse, it’s best to do it with friends.

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

kitchen1

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.