Geographical Cure

The geographical cure: false hope that a change in location might transform us. Always seductive, isn’t it?

It can seem hard to shake the idea of the geographic cure—the promise that picking up and moving to a new place will change your life for the better.

By better, I mostly mean different. For the 12% of Americans that move annually,  perhaps the most intoxicating thing about settling in a new place is our newness in it. In our current town or city, we often feel that we know how our story has turned out. The job that would be great, but for a psychotic boss. The neighbor whose dumb dog barks only between 2 and 6 am; the coffee shops that close before dark. Living in any town long enough makes you intimate with its weaknesses, much in the way you discover your partner’s grotesque nose-hair grooming habits only after you get married.Living in any town long enough makes you intimate with its weaknesses. (The same thing happens in relationships… “I’ll be happier with someone else…”)

A new city, meanwhile, is the geographic version of a crush, enticing and full of untested promise. So we wind up believing that the simplest way to get a fresh start is to pick up and move to a new place, where we might find a more challenging job, get out of debt, start dating a nicer boyfriend or girlfriend, take up yoga and finally begin self-actualizing.

There is a tiny grain of truth to the myth of the geographic cure. Living in a new city will, inevitably, change your life. The first time I moved to California, it nearly killed me because I discovered that “no matter where I went, there I was.”  Instead of a geographical cure, I needed a heart change that would take me many more years to discover, before finally quitting drinking so I could start to discover my true self.

And while to some degree your happiness in a given city is largely the product of your perceptions,  there are indeed measurable differences between places when it comes to factors like cost of living, weather, or demographics. If you land in a new city that better meets your needs, there’s every possibility you’ll feel at least marginally happier.

There are some big problems though with the geographic cure—starting with the fact that we tend to overestimate how happy we’ll be in a new environment. If we don’t fix whatever is broken inside, an external fix is highly unlikely to work.

A “focusing illusion” makes people think easily observable differences between places (like better produce or proximity to the ocean) will matter more than they do in reality. The pleasure of hedonism can also wear off after a little while. Living in California sunshine could cheer a winter-weary Minnesotan at first, but after a while, that person can find that they are the same person in a different place, and that the move didn’t do quite as expected if they are still broken inside.

 So the next time you travel to a tempting new destination, think about what it is that appeals to you so much about the place, and channel your energies to discovering if you are trying to fix an internal problem with a geographical move.

And if you do move, commit to your new town as fiercely as you can. But don’t expect it to fix you. 


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