Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

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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.