How to Really Find the Best Places to Live
Over a year ago my partner and I decided it was time to say goodbye to New York City. We had spent our 20s there, but as we approached our 30s, we were burned out. We needed to find somewhere new to call home. We don’t have children and we both work remotely, so the possibilities were endless. We know it’s a privilege to have this kind of flexibility, but it also made it all the more challenging to answer the question: Where do we want to live?
Our first step was, no surprise here, consulting Google. A search of “best places to move” yielded endless lists of pleasant-looking towns and cities evaluated on the basis of things like safety, quality of schools, and career opportunities. Such lists are ubiquitous, but they fail to account for individual needs and lived experiences. In particular, the experiences of Black people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals are often not considered by the compilers of these lists (although identity-specific lists of LGBTQ-friendly towns or towns where Black people thrive are out there). Even for a white, heterosexual couple like us, these lists were too general and arbitrary. It was clear we needed to zero in on what really mattered to us.
That’s the right approach, according to Richard Florida, who literally wrote the book on how to decide where to live. In Who’s Your City, Richard recommends considering factors in five key categories when choosing a place to live: career prospects, proximity to friends and family, your lifestyle and hobbies, your personality as it relates to the environment around you, and your current life stage. Once you’ve identified the factors that matter to you, you can better evaluate your potential hometowns. Alexis Grant, a former journalist and content consultant, successfully used this process when determining where to move next. It unexpectedly landed her and her husband in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where they are very happy, according to her blog.
Armed with this new process, my partner and I began outlining our requirements, which included access to a major international airport, sunny weather, and proximity to family. The only problem was, we weren’t sure if the factors we thought were important really would contribute to overall happiness. Were there any qualities of a place that had been proven to have a positive impact on well-being, we wondered.
According to a report from the Knight Foundation, the three things that generate place-based attachment among residents are social offerings (spaces and businesses that encourage social gathering), aesthetics (that is to say, physical beauty), and openness (defined as a community that is welcoming to all different types of people). That’s consistent with what Dan Buettner found in his reporting for his book Thrive, which is about the places in the world that boast the happiest residents. Reporting from Denmark, Singapore, Mexico, and San Luis Obispo, Dan found that communities that are highly tolerant and provide plenty of space for socializing tended to have happier residents. On the other hand, long commutes, or living among people with substantially more wealth than we have, would likely decrease happiness.
Both Dan’s and the Knight Foundation’s findings helped us narrow our options down to a final list of three main criteria: access to natural beauty, affordability, and social opportunities. After a nearly monthlong road trip touring our final selections, we settled on Madison, Wisconsin, where we both have family, the cost of living is reasonable, and the lakes and rivers provide abundant natural beauty.
We were grateful to find a place to settle down, especially as the pandemic took off, but I was still uneasy. Was Madison our one, perfect, forever home? According to Allison Task, a life coach who has helped dozens of clients navigate location transitions, that’s the wrong question. You can only plan your life three to five years at a time, she told me; what you need right now might not be what you need later.
With the world in upheaval, and long-term planning pretty much impossible, that was the permission I needed to settle for the moment. By New Year’s day the lakes had started to freeze over, and we skated past ice fishermen huddled in tents. We’re not sure if we’ll be here forever, but Madison is home for now.