At first blush, Boston and San Francisco appear to be nearly interchangeable waterfront cities in blue political states with unaffordable housing and loads of high-tech workers who love lattes and Priuses. But those cultural similarities end when it comes to what fuels our happiness, according to a new study.
In Boston, residents ranked their financial status, educational attainment (must have that Harvard or graduate degree), family support, and feeling of contributing to their community as essential factors that determine whether they are satisfied with life. Work is important, too.
In San Francisco, however, work is the only social norm that matters for life fulfillment; to heck with the diplomas and big bank accounts. Californians mainly feed on those ebullient free-to-be-you-and-me thoughts and experiences.
That’s the conclusion of a series of experiments conducted by psychologists who set out to identify predictors of happiness and whether they differ from East Coast to West Coast. The findings help explain why we often feel like fish out of water when we move to a new city.
“I’ve lived in both Boston and the San Francisco Bay area, so I’ve been thinking about these differences for a while,” said study leader Victoria Plaut, a social and cultural psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law. “What we found is that common stereotypes — such as Boston is old, established, and traditional, and that San Francisco is new, innovative, and free-spirited — actually reflect something much deeper.”
In her experiments, published online this week in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Plaut surveyed a total of nearly 3,800 volunteers from both cities and found that people from Boston were significantly more likely to perceive clear norms in their city; Boston participants also reported higher levels of life satisfaction if they hewed to those cultural practices, such as rooting for local teams or being active with community organizations, compared with those from San Francisco.
“Established social norms contour the experience of the self in Boston,” the study authors wrote. “The lack of association between these factors and self-satisfaction in San Francisco suggests a self that is relatively less bound by a concern with status and established social norms.”
Folks from Boston are also more likely to report higher levels of happiness if they are not aggravated by life annoyances such as demanding in-laws or a tough boss. On the other hand, those from San Francisco were more apt to say they needed to have fun and novel experiences to get a happiness boost.
The researchers also analyzed hospital and venture capital websites and found differences in marketing language. Banking sites in Boston emphasized experience and commitment to high business standards, whereas those in San Francisco promised to work with experts who have unique ideas and courage to be first.
While Boston hospitals marketed themselves as providing skilled experts and large staffs, those in San Francisco put a premium on patient empowerment and alternative medicine.
Even newspapers appear to fall in line with these cultural patterns. The researchers found that compared with the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe mentioned communities more in its coverage, both domestic and international, and had less coverage of individuals, such as how a visionary lost his fortune, than did the Chronicle.
Of course, all of these findings do not mean one city trumps the other. “Both have virtues and downsides,” Plaut said, and both demand we make some mental adjustments if we move there from a different city.
“Those who move to San Francisco from Boston might feel overwhelmed by unlimited possibilities,” she said, “without realizing that they are simply mismatched with their environment.”
Having a better understanding of how our culture shapes our happiness could help us if we have to skip town. Until you adjust, you may want to seek out other like-minded transplants from Boston. Just look for the Red Sox caps.Deborah Kotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.