Does Living in California Make People Happy?

by | Apr 23, 2019


I live in St. Louis. We get all four seasons in full force: hot humid summers and snow in the winters (the spring and fall are usually very nice). It’s a nice place to live, but not spectacularly beautiful – we have no mountains, no ocean. We don’t have nearly the outdoor activities that some areas of the country have. When I go to California (which I do quite often) I really enjoy the weather, the views and the activities.

So – would I be happier if I moved to California?

This very question was tackled by Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade in 1998 (notably, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 even though he is a psychologist). In their study, they surveyed students at two Midwestern universities (Michigan and Ohio State) and others at two California schools (UCLA and Cal Irvine) about their satisfaction with various areas of their lives, including overall life satisfaction, social life, access to natural beauty and outdoor activities, and the weather, among others. The researchers then asked the students to postulate how they might score those well-being factors for another student “sharing your values and interests” at the other university in their region (i.e. Michigan students were asked how an Ohio State Student would score) as well as at a school at the other part of the country (i.e. a UCLA students were asked how an Ohio State student would score – and vice versa).

Fascinating. What did they find?

Big Finding One: When answering for overall how satisfied they were with their OWN lives, there was ZERO difference between life satisfaction of the Midwestern students and the California students. Thus, students in Ann Arbor were just as happy as those in LA.

Big Finding Two: Finding one is “remarkable because satisfaction with several aspects of life shows significant differences, all favoring California . . . students in the Midwest were less satisfied with every aspect of their climate, with the natural beauty of their region, and with their opportunities for outdoor recreation.”

Big Finding Three: Even though self-reported life satisfaction was identical in both regions, both the California and Midwestern students predicted that students in California would have greater overall life satisfaction than those in the Midwest.

Thus, the three findings can be summarized as follows: most people think that people living in California are happier, in large part due to the climate and other aspects of the location, but actually Midwesterners and Californians have the same level of happiness.

Why does this happen? The study authors posit that it is due to a bias called “the focusing illusion” which Kahneman has summarized as “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” That is because you are thinking about it! Things you focus on seem important at that moment. When asked whether moving to California leads to greater happiness, we tend to focus on the different attributes of California vs. the Midwest – usually the natural beauty and the great weather. So, those factors appear important in the moment.

If, however, you sat down and made a list of what added to your life-satisfaction in order of importance it would likely include things like health, relationships with family and friends, job satisfaction, financial security, having a dog, etc. The climate, the view, and outdoor activities, while contributory, likely would be far down the list.

And, we may not be cognizant of what things reduce our happiness. What about commuting? Yesterday’s IFOD was about how commuting negatively affects our happiness and California ranks #5 in the U.S. for average length of commuting times and areas of LA and SF are particularly bad in terms of commute. Maybe the climate and geography would add to my happiness if I lived in California but that might be more than offset by having a longer commute (and dealing with more traffic in general). Also, the cost of living is higher – maybe I could afford fewer vacations and/or I might feel financial stress.

Key takeaways from this interesting research:

  • When we think about something we focus on it and it looms large in our minds. We then give it greater weight than is warranted.
  • This confirms other decision studies that find people tend to evaluate outcomes as changes, not as states – meaning that we greatly overestimate our emotional responses to changed circumstances.
  • We are probably not “good judges of the effect of changing circumstances on [our] own life satisfaction, or on that of others.” We may think that changing a job or getting a promotion will lead to happiness, but likely we’ve focused in on the CHANGE and haven’t thought enough about all the factors in the changed steady state of being.


  1. I think if you add one key word I can guarantee would be would be happier in California. Just put “Baja” before California.

    • *guarantee everyone would be

  2. Although I am a daily reader I comment little. I thank you for your daily contribution to my mornings.

  3. To me this discussion has always been akin to the Mary-Ann vs. Ginger debate, back in the days of Gilligan’s Island. One (Ginger/California) is voluptuous and immediately alluring, BUT incredibly high-maintenance. The other (Mary-Ann/Midwest has a more subtle physical beauty, but complements that with many other desirable traits such as being practical and reasonable. I was always a Mary-Ann guy, which may explain why I moved from the coast to Missouri.

    Thanks for the scientific validation of my eighth grade analysis!

    • That is an amazing analogy!

    • love it. (Mary-Ann kinda guy myself)

      • Good one!

  4. Also depends on your time in life — when I was a student I was completely wrapped up in my studies and the excitement of starting my adult life. Anyplace was fine as long as I had challenges and friends. For the next 30 years I didn’t really think about where I lived — I lived where I could engage in the most interesting work. Because of that I also learned that EVERY place has wonderful features as well as drawbacks. There is something amazing about the rural MO country side that might notbe “awesome” but can be “awe-inspiring.” Living in areas without stupendous beauty (northeast, midwest, south) can teach you to appreciate beauty on a more intimate scale. I remember a day at a midwest university when a woman from CA told me — “at first I so missed the mountains – now I love the sky and the clouds.” It’s what you make it.
    That said — as I age — climate in becoming more meaningful to me. I want to be able to be outside and active each and every day without fear of ice or the dreaded heat and humidity.

  5. Michael and I liked this one a lot, something we talk about often. As a native Californian living in St. Louis, both places have positives and negatives. Although California weather and scenery can’t be beat!!

  6. Did you write this for me 🙂

    • Totally. St. Louis is utopia

    • I lived many years in Illinois and also in California. I thought I was happy in Illinois. There ain’t no comparison!!


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