I recently relocated from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin. I made the move in order to have a lower cost of living, and to give me more flexibility to focus on things that will really make me and my family happy.
Most people think this is an extreme move that they could not do. But maybe you can. I am married with two small children, and I am a person who has always lived in big, expensive cities: Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. But the move turned out well for me.
I decided to move after reading a lot of research about what makes us happy — in my mind, it all points to a small, inexpensive city. We used to think that happiness was a mystery, but it's not. The positive psychology movement is scientific, mainstream, and taught at 150 universities in the United States. At Harvard, positive psychology is the most popular undergraduate course. This is not fringe stuff, and it's hefty enough to guide big life decisions.
The conclusions I came to will not work for all of you, but surely the research I used will give you some ideas to think about. Here are some tidbits of positive psychology research that influenced my move:
Money will not make you happy
Money doesn't buy happiness, but you won't feel like you have enough money if you don't make as much as your friends and neighbors. We really only need about $40,000 to be happy. Once you have a roof over your head (not a nice roof) and food on your plate (not out-of-season fruit), happiness is based on how optimistic your outlook is. To a point.
If all your friends earn a lot more than you do, it is nearly impossible to feel secure with the amount of money you have. I love this story from the New York Times real estate section: A husband and wife are looking a summer home in the Hamptons that is on the market for $5 million, and the wife says to the husband, “If you had a better job, we wouldn't have to live this way.”
Don't be so arrogant as to think you could not be this person. Most of us are not immune to the uneasy feeling of being the person in the room with the least disposable income. It's human nature.
More choices will not make you happy
In New York City you can get the best of everything. It's part of the draw. And people who live there are very smart about figuring out what is best. In fact, so much so that if you tell someone you have the best of anything, they roll their eyes because it's such a cliché.
The problem is that more choices make us more stressed. So if we can choose between ten very expensive health clubs, we will want one. But if there is only one, small, sort-of-ratty health club, we'll usually just go there and work out and won't worry that there is nothing better.
Your mortgage is more long-term than your career
Most of us will change careers more than we will change homes. Moving kids around the country in order to change jobs is not good for the children. Kids need to make long-term friends, to feel part of a community, to have a sense of stability around them so they can explore themselves.
This is not news. What's news is that you should pick your location first and then pick your job. You will change jobs a lot, you will change careers a few times, you will probably not change your community. If you pick a community that is cheaper to live in, then you will have more flexibility when you are changing jobs and careers. The biggest barrier to people leaving a career they don't like is that they've boxed themselves in financially. Living in an inexpensive city makes it more likely you can change careers when you need to.
Your relationships matter most
People think a job will make them happy, but it won't. A job can ensure that you are not unhappy. You need to have interesting, challenging work that you can make progress on. You need to work with people you don't hate. But that will not make you happy unless you have good relationships.
A big factor in your happiness is if you are in a committed relationship and you see that person regularly. Want to test yourself? If you are having sex once a week with the same person, you're in a great position to maximize your happiness.
So live somewhere close to your friends and family if you can. And don't relocate away from your significant other to get more money. It's not worth it. The less financial stress you have in your life, the more time and energy you can spend with your friends and family.
I think people spend a lot of time thinking about small financial issues because they think the large financial issues are set in stone. My life became amazingly less stressful as soon as I moved to a city with a very low cost of living. I recommend that you think of doing the same thing — think about what is keeping you from doing that, and ask yourself if it's a real barrier or just fear of a big change.
And, if you do want to consider a move seriously, here's a bunch of other research I used for my own move.