Will moving to California make you happier?

I pass dozens of brilliantly-colored flowers like this on my daily walk to work. (Photo credit: B Mully, Flickr)

I might have to disagree with a Nobel Laureate on this one.

According to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychologist and author of the excellent Thinking Fast and Slow, the answer is “No.” A recent post on Big Think describes how Kahneman asked people to predict who’s happier, on average, Californians or Midwesterners. Most people (from both regions!) say, “Californians.” That’s because, Kahneman explains, the act of comparison highlights what’s saliently different between the two regions: their climate. And on that dimension, California’s a pretty clear winner.

And indeed, Californians report loving their climate and Midwesterners loathing theirs. Yet despite that, the overall life satisfaction in the two regions turns out to be nearly identical, according to a 1998 survey by Kahneman. Climate just isn’t that important to happiness, it turns out. The fact that it greatly influences people’s predictions of relative happiness in California vs. the Midwest stems from something called the “Focusing illusion,” Kahneman explains — a bias he sums up with the pithy, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

So far, I have no beef with this interpretation. What I *do* object to is the conclusion, which Kahneman implies and Big Think makes explicit, that “moving to california won’t make you happy.”

I moved from New York, NY to Berkeley, CA, earlier this year, and — having read Kahneman — I didn’t expect the climate to make a noticeable difference in my mood. And yet, every day, when I would leave my house, I found my spirits buoyed by the balmy weather and the clear blue sky. I noticed, multiple times daily, how beautiful the vegetation was and how fresh, fragrant, and — well — un-Manhattanlike the air smelled. It made a noticeable difference in my mood nearly every day, and continues to, six months after I moved.

I was a little surprised that my result was so different from Kahneman’s. And then I realized: Most of those Californians in his study have always been Californians. They grew up there; they didn’t move from the Midwest (or Manhattan) to California. So it’s understandable that their climate doesn’t make a big impact on their happiness, because they have no standard of comparison. They’re not constantly thinking to themselves — as I have been — “Man, it’s so *nice* not to have to shiver inside a bulky winter coat!” or “Man, it’s such a relief not to smell garbage bags sitting out on the sidewalk,” or “Wow, it’s quite pleasant not to be sticky with sweat.”

I’m only one data point, of course, and it’s possible that if you studied people who moved from the Midwest to CA, you’d find that their change in happiness was in fact no different than that of people who moved from CA to the Midwest. But at least, I think it’s important to note that that’s not the study Kahneman did. And that, as a general rule in reading (or conducting!) happiness research, it’s important to remember that the happiness you get from a state depends on your previous states.

16 Responses to Will moving to California make you happier?

  1. Also the water is really good here… Manhattan also has good water, but most of the Midwest dosen’t.

  2. michaelblume says:

    This suggests that, given the option, you’re better off being *born* somewhere awful…

    • I’d say that’s indeed true, if one makes the (large) assumption that said negative starting conditions won’t affect longer-term life outcomes.

      Partly this also relates to the question “Would you rather be born a billionaire, or become one through your own efforts?” I’ve heard of many wealthy people thinking that they lost out a lot by being born into it.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Well, unfortunately I suspect that people born someone truly awful would have a tougher time “escaping.” But you might be right: for those who are guaranteed the ability to move later, there’s probably an ideal amount of acclimating (read: suffering) before moving somewhere nicer.

  3. Trent Fowler says:

    Your final point is a really good one, namely that a grain of salt is always needed when applying psychology studies to your real life. Inevitably there is a variable not accounted for or controlled.

    It occurs to me that you’ll be able to test another hypothesis by observing if/how long it takes you to return to your happiness baseline.

  4. Trent Fowler says:

    Your last point is a good one. A rationalist has to be careful in applying psychology research to their life, as inevitably there is a variable not accounted for or controlled.

    It also occurs to me that you can test another hypothesis by observing whether/when you return to your previous happiness baseline.

  5. Lyz says:

    My brother moved to Oakland from Chicago last year and I’ve been out to visit him several times now. We both agree that it’s definitely better than the Midwest. (But my house here is cheaper.)

  6. Steve says:

    There’s another possible explanation here – maybe life in New York is just really, really miserable for a lot of reasons.

  7. Aaron Shure says:

    Of course, you are more than one data point! You contain multitudes, and so it will be difficult to tease out whether or not other factors, like say having a really sweet gig, aren’t also influencing your enjoyment of the climes.

  8. OhioJoe says:

    Oof. This is why he is a Nobel prize winning psychologist and we’re not.

    It is important to know that there are ALWAYS anecdotal exceptions in psychological findings. Psychology identifies *trends*, and the more symmetry or diversion the groups of qualitative data are, the more significant the finding. And Tom, I don’t think it’s prudent to say you should *always* take psychological findings with a grain of salt. Perhaps you didn’t intend to equate psychological findings with the trivial lens that implies, but general findings such as this are meant to help people understand how they might *likely* have a skewed perspective. For example, NOT to back up the findings (as they are anecdotes), but to portray how this finding might have helped people: I’ve known at least 7 different people who have moved to California from the Midwest jazzed and excited to get out of Ohio, only to eventually return to Ohio after a few months to over a decade. All of them reporting that it was nice, but they are happier here. It comes down to where you feel most connected, and that typically (again, on a psychological level) is where you grew up. etc. Again… *typically*, which means there ARE exceptions. 🙂

  9. Greg Linster says:

    It’s possible that you are still in the honeymoon phase though, right? I haven’t read Thinking Fast and Slow yet, but I think you will eventually adjust the speed on your hedonic treadmill. The problem with trying to study happiness is that reported happiness simply doesn’t tell us much objectively.

    Whatever the reason, no matter how happy we think we currently are, we will always find a way to think we could be happier still.

    • Andrew T says:

      Yeah, first thing I thought of was those studies of people who’d come into money and other fortunate events that one would expect to increase overall happiness, yet reported about the same average in the end. My suspicion though has always been that, barring clinical depression, we basically adjust our thinking and speaking about happiness to be relative to our baseline average, even if we are “objectively” more or less content and fulfilled than someone else.

      So congratulations, Jesse, for putting yourself in a happy situation! Even if you readjust to that new baseline, I hope you can remember this moment and know that you are probably enjoying a more pleasing life than you were before 🙂

  10. bharatwrites says:

    As this study is based on self-reporting, I’m not sure how—if at all—Kahneman accounted for confirmation bias. If I moved from NYC to SF, I will celebrate the mild winters and the not-smelling-garbage-bags thing, and I might not notice the drop in pizza-quality or that I have to drive more.
    Another thing Kahneman misses is that most people are either happy or unhappy: you could put some people in a box where it’s always 70 degrees and sunny, and they’ll find reasons to crib. Whereas there might be others who will say, “It’s just a little rain.” during Hurricane Irene.
    I moved to NYC (Queens) from Mumbai just five years ago, so I sometimes take NYC-slights personally! Hope it doesn’t show.

  11. Phil Goetz says:

    Your point is good; to be interpreted as Kahneman wished, the survey results should have had lifetime residents removed. OTOH, Manhattan != not(California).

    But note, happiness != utility. I think New Yorkers value happiness less than people in SF do. My guess is that New Yorkers value achievement and a wide variety of intense emotions more than happiness. Hard to say which way causality runs; do people move to SF because they value happiness? It could just be symmetry-breaking between these two particular cities.

  12. Max says:

    – Rabbi, my life is so hard and I’m so tired. What should I do?
    – Buy a goat.
    – What?! I have a wife and seven kids, we all live in a small apartment, and…
    – Just buy a goat, and see me next week.

    A week goes by.

    – Rabbi, I followed your advice and now my life is much harder than before: the goat stinks and makes more noise than my wife and seven kids! What should I do?
    – Sell the goat.

  13. Well, it’s six years later. Are you still happier living in California? I think the happiness literature suggests that you should have returned to your “baseline” happiness now.

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