“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
For many years, the rate at which Americans move has been falling. But as remote work has gone from a necessity during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to an unforeseen employment perk, that trend might be coming to an end. Twenty-two percent of Americans relocated during the pandemic or know someone who did, according to the Pew Research Center. Another survey found that a whopping 56 percent said they planned to move in 2021.
People have lots of reasons to move, whether they’re considering proximity to family (to get more—or less!) or escaping the high price and maddening traffic of big cities. And then, there’s weather. As I write, I am looking out my window at a gray fall morning in Boston and know full well what gloom lies ahead. As people all over the Northern Hemisphere face a long, cold, dark winter, you might be thinking that now is your chance to look for a sunnier place to live. Some fast-growing cities in places such as South Carolina and Texas want you to think you’ll be happier if you do.
This motive for moving isn’t outlandish on its face. Even before the pandemic, 11 percent of Americans reported having moved at least once in their lives to find better weather. And a lot of research shows that sun and warmth can indeed boost your mood. But on balance, moving for the sake of nice weather probably isn’t worth the money, time, and personal disruption. There are better strategies to get happier, even if you live in a dreary place.
Sunshine and happiness are undeniably related. Researchers have long noted what they call the “seasonal exacerbations of psychiatric symptoms”: Mood is worse and anxiety is higher when the weather turns colder and grayer. In one experiment from 1983, researchers surveyed people on days with different weather and asked them to evaluate their mood and happiness. Both were higher on sunny days than on rainy days.
When John Denver sang, “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy,” he was literally correct. When sunshine touches our skin, it increases our levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves mood. Some people have an especially strong negative reaction to a lack of sunshine in the form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which afflicts up to 9.7 percent of the population, especially at higher latitudes and during the winter months. In addition to experiencing serotonin deficits from a lack of sunshine, people with SAD appear to be especially vulnerable to the ways that darkness disturbs their circadian rhythms, interrupting their sleep cycles in ways that lower well-being.
Temperature matters for happiness too. One study from 2013 measured participants’ mood at various temperatures and found that a cool 57 degrees Fahrenheit outdoors is optimal for a positive mood. Temperatures colder and hotter than that were associated with lower sense of well-being.
You might conclude that the secret to happiness is to move somewhere like Palo Alto—a place that is nearly always sunny, warm, and not too hot. Not so fast. That consistently temperate weather isn’t all for the good. People in permanently warm places tend to be happier than their cold-weather counterparts during the autumn and winter months. But in the spring, that pattern reverses. When someone says they “enjoy the change in seasons,” they probably don’t mean they enjoy digging their car out of a snowbank but rather that they get a big, noticeable happiness boost when bad weather turns into good weather.
And then, of course, there is the problem of homeostasis. Humans are generally bad at enjoying anything for very long before we become accustomed to it and return to our baseline happiness levels. Researchers warn that the thrill of good weather will wear off in relatively short order after moving, just as thrills tend to do after other happiness-inducing phenomena (such as marriage or coming into a lot of money).
If moving somewhere warm produces such marginal and temporary gains, why is it so tempting? It turns out that people tend to think that weather matters more for their happiness than it actually does. In a now-classic study from the 1990s, the Nobel-laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his co-author, David Schkade, asked midwesterners and Californians to rate their own life satisfaction as well as the happiness of people living in the other region. The self-ratings were the same, but both groups thought that Californians were happier than midwesterners, specifically because of the climate. The researchers concluded that this mismatch was evidence of a “focusing illusion”: An obvious difference like sunny weather is thought to matter more than it does for happiness, compared with other, less visible influences such as friendships and homey familiarity.
Sunny weather is great. But unless you suffer from SAD, moving to get it probably isn’t worth the effort. You’ll miss the seasons if you’re coming from somewhere more temperate, the gains to your well-being will be smaller than you imagine, and that small happiness bump will evaporate all too quickly. Meanwhile, depending on where you choose to go, you could be stuck with chronic happiness drains such as high taxes and house prices. I am not saying that no one should live in Austin or Palo Alto, but you almost certainly shouldn’t do so primarily in search of the sun.
You’ll be happier if you can find a way to get sun and warmth temporarily, especially during the bleakness of the winter months. Research shows that frequent, short vacations—if you can take them—are a good strategy for raising overall well-being, because they circumvent the adaptation problem. We already know that people who live in cold places get a mood boost as spring arrives; you can simulate that change over and over with short vacations to sunny spots. (Although, of course, you do have to go back home.)
Rather than getting the weather you like, another strategy is to like the weather you get. My wife, a native of sunny Spain, committed to learning the science behind Syracuse, New York’s dreary climate when we moved there and wound up loving it. Similarly, “bad” weather can be made good when it is a vehicle for fun. I met a family that took to winter camping in upstate New York, which seemed to me to be taking things a bit far. But cross-country skiing is a pretty good time—and impossible in Miami.
If all else fails, you can simply give up and decide to stop complaining. I have lived in sunny places (Boca Raton, Santa Monica, Barcelona) and gray places (Seattle, upstate New York) in roughly equal measure and have been keeping careful track of my happiness for decades. Despite it being a convenient grievance, the climate has not affected my well-being in any systematic way. Confronted by the data, I have simply given up whining about the Boston winters, and that has helped me like them better. I focus instead on the things I live here for, such as a university teaching job I love.
Many seemingly commonsense ideas about chasing the sun for happiness don’t, shall we say, weather scrutiny. Besides the practical problems I listed above, they suffer from a philosophical one as well: assuming that a little gloom is bad and should be banished. On the contrary, a full life is one that has its sun and rain, all of it offering itself to be experienced. No one put this better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem “The Rainy Day”:
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
The sun will be back. In the meantime, be fully alive in the rain.