Despite their cities’ similarities, Boston and San Francisco residents find happiness in different ways, study suggests

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, Priuses, and Democrats. 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’re 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 being Californians mainly feed on those ebullient free-to-be-you-and-me thoughts and experiences.


That’s the conclusion of an interesting 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 and have to adjust to different cultural norms.

“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 UC Berkeley 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 as one paper 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 than their counterparts 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 their local sports teams or being active with community organizations, compared with those from San Francisco.


“Established social norms contour the experience of the self in Boston,’’ wrote the study authors. “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’re not aggravated by life annoyances such as demanding in-laws, a long commute, 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 in order to get a happiness boost.

The researchers also conducted an analysis of hospital and venture capital websites and found clear differences between marketing language used on the two coasts. Banking websites in Boston emphasized their experience and commitment to following the highest business standards, whereas those in San Francisco promised to partner with experts who have unique, breakthrough ideas and the courage to be first.

While Boston hospitals marketed themselves as providing skilled experts and large staffs, those in San Francisco put more of a premium on providing patient empowerment and alternative medicine.

Even newspapers such as the Globe appear to fall in line with these cultural patterns. The researchers found that compared with the San Francisco Chronicle, the 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 the Chronicle.

Of course, all of these findings don’t mean one city trumps the other (though, in my opinion, Boston clearly wins). “Both have virtues and downsides,’’ Plaut said, and both demand we make some mental adjustments if we move to them from a different city.


“Those who move to San Francisco from Boston might feel overwhelmed by unlimited possibilities,’’ she said, “without realizing that they’re simply mismatched with their environment.’’

Having a better understanding of how our culture shapes our happiness could help us when we inevitably have to skip town. “Trying to discover the source of disorientation can be helpful,’’ Plaut advised. Until you adjust, you may want to seek out other like-minded transplants from Boston. Just look for the Red Sox caps.

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