Ever since Socrates, philosophers have pondered what makes for a happy life, without reaching a conclusive answer. The question clearly resonates on social media nowadays: LinkedIn recently posted a listicle from Inc. magazine about things people can do to be happier.
Number two on the list (right after “Learn something new, even if it’s stressful: Mastering a new skill means more stress now but more happiness later.”) was “Make friends who live near you: The sweet spot is a happy friend who lives a mile away.”
This insight is loosely based on a still ongoing multigenerational medical study that has tracked thousands of individuals and their offspring in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts since 1948.
The Framingham Heart Study was not conducted by economists or urban planners, but by health professionals at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood institute and (since 1971) Boston University. It’s original purpose? To home in on the causes of cardiovascular disease. As part of the study, around 5,000 people were asked to document their emotional states at regular intervals; the thinking was that wellbeing is linked to heart health.
The scientists may not have been thinking about real estate. But they found that “geographically close friends and neighbors have the greatest effect on happiness,” according to the listicle.
These are the types of people, in descending order, that have the greatest impact on happiness: near mutual friends, next-door neighbor, nearby friend (a person whom the participant named as a friend but the “friend” did not reciprocate that label), nearby friend-perceived friend (a person whom the participant did not name as a friend but who claimed to be a friend of the participant), nearby sibling, co-resident spouse, distant sibling, non-co-resident spouse, same-block neighbor, distant friend.
The main takeaway: “Distant friends are fine, but the closer your friends are to where you live, the better,” as long as they have a generally sunny disposition.
This explains how what is often viewed as a pragmatic decision, a decision about where to rent or buy a home or locate an office, can be based as much on friendship as on the traditional real-estate criteria – schools, commute length, aesthetics.
That’s because most people intuitively understand that having pleasant and happy people they bump into in the grocery story, the coffee shop, and on the train platform somehow makes them happy.
Now here is a reason – backed by science – why people may be reluctant to look for a house or an apartment anywhere other than the neighborhood where they already live,
A friend recently described the sacrifices her family has been willing to make to live in a community they have embraced and whose members have embraced them. Her city, one she did not grow up in, is “gritty,” with “failing schools” and “horrific taxes.” Her two daughters attend a school a 40-minute drive away. Her work is a 30-minute train ride away. She didn’t move to the neighborhood because she and her husband had friends there, but they have become friends with so many people in their community that they don’t want to leave.
“We can hardly go anywhere and not run into folks we know,” she said. “A quick trip to drop a letter into the post box can take an hour.”
They are godparents to their next-door neighbors’ son. But even weak can be important. She has “train friends,” people’s whose last names she doesn’t know but who share very personal details of their lives with each other. They only see each other by happenstance, on the train.
“And that’s fine,” she said. “Being surrounded by nice people makes the commute worthwhile.”
Twenty-two years ago, Robert D. Putnam, the political scientist, coined the term “bowling alone” to describe what he saw as a fraying of the social fabric due to fewer and fewer in-person interactions among people. It turns out that people’s need for community has never left us (assuming few of us seek out communities of miserable people), and that real estate decisions have an impact on the very nebulous human pursuit of happiness