How to Be Happy Where You Are

Ries at the Huntsville Botanical Garden in fall 2016.

Ries at the Huntsville Botanical Garden in fall 2016.

It’s no secret that we had a hard time living in the south. (Sorry, southern friends.) There were a lot of reasons for this, some superficial (the lack of proper seasons,) some deep (cultural). One thing that I can say for certain, however, is that we loved Huntsville, Alabama.

Now to be clear, there’s a subtle but important difference between loving a place and loving to live there. Huntsville is a fantastic city: NASA is there, Google Fiber is on its way, Google just announced plans to open a server farm there, etc. The food is good, the weather is mild (for the South,) there’s a lot of money going around and the cost of living is low. There’s even a burgeoning arts scene, with the Lowe Mill functioning as its sort of mascot. (Click here for our post on Lowe Mill.)

Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment in Huntsville, Alabama, the largest privately owned arts collective in the US.

Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment in Huntsville, Alabama, the largest privately owned arts collective in the US.

All in all, Huntsville is great.

We were just miserable living there.

Ries in October 2016.

Ries in October 2016.

To paint a picture, you have to imagine me at age 26. I’m working a 9-5 cubicle job, making good money, and - on the whole - being treated very well. I wear slacks and Van Heusen polo shirts to work, button ups with cuff-links and ties in the event we have a big client meeting (we called them customers). My colleagues at work are my friends. We go out to lunch and share water cooler talk. I’ve got a great boss (and a couple not great bosses). Life, in short, is good.

So why is that every day, almost as a ritual, I  found myself reading articles titled “Top 20 Places to Live in the US,” or “The Ten Best Places to Live in America”? Why did I stop reading books, instead slipping into video games almost exclusively?

Amanda likes to remind me of a something I said to her in the kitchen one night, after having been looking through Instagram for an hour or so. “I don’t want what they have,” I told her. “I just don’t want what I have.”

Ries and Nugget playing video games at our apartment in Huntsville, Alabama in October 2016.

Ries and Nugget playing video games at our apartment in Huntsville, Alabama in October 2016.

Simply put, I was unhappy.

Unhappiness - as anybody knows who has contended with it - strikes when it wants, often without a clearly articulated reason. It’s all much clearer in hindsight: I wasn’t working a bad job - I was working the wrong job. I wasn’t unsuccessful - I was unsuccessful in the areas that meant the most to me.

I didn’t live a bad place.

I lived in the wrong place.

If you’re reading this, you probably know how the story ends. Amanda and I leave Huntsville to come back to school in pursuit of a graduate degree, hoping to make a fundamental career change. People thought we were crazy. We were, a little bit, but it was a nice feeling to be a good kind of crazy for once.

When we announced we were leaving Huntsville and moving to Indiana for “a life reset” in July 2017. Gus was just a little nugget!

When we announced we were leaving Huntsville and moving to Indiana for “a life reset” in July 2017. Gus was just a little nugget!

Two years later and I can say we’ve been successful (thus far), and that the change in our demeanor has been dramatic. Bloomington isn’t a better town than Huntsville - not by a long shot. It sure isn’t on any top ten cities lists. (I’d wager it’s not even on top fifty lists.) And why would it be? It doesn’t even have a good Target! (Something Amanda grumbles about on a weekly basis.)

Yet, on the whole, we’re happier in Bloomington. Why?

Because this is where we are supposed to be right now. We’re on the right path.

The irony, however - and the lesson - didn’t become apparent until I was halfway through my first year of studies when - out of curiosity, while picking cities in which to job search post graduation - I revisited my old stomping grounds of the US News and Report Best Places To Live (2018).

It was nice opening up the page. It brought back nostalgic memories. There were a lot of names I expected to see - Denver, Austin, Portland…

And then, as number 7 of the US News and Report Best Places to Live (2018), a new name sat cheerfully amongst the others, a big metaphorical grin all over its shiny face: Huntsville, Alabama.

Another shot of Huntsville’s Lowe Mill.

Another shot of Huntsville’s Lowe Mill.


Growing up, we hear a lot of snappy wisdom.

One adage we’ve all heard is the suggestion that the grass is always greener on the other side. Speaking from experience, this is mostly true. I laughed out loud, good and hard, at the sight of Huntsville breaking into the top ten places to live in the country - not because I disagreed with its ranking, but because I agreed with it. I knew in my heart it deserved to be there. I’d always known, even when I lived there and fantasized about living anywhere else.

The question, you see, isn’t whether the grass is greener on the other side. The grass is undeniably greener in some places than others. (Augusta, Georgia will never be on a top ten list.) The question, then, becomes: what do you do about brown grass - or, put another way - how can we be happy where we are?

Why am I happier in Bloomington, which doesn’t even have a good Target, than I was in Huntsville, which had an Apple Store?

Simply put - what was making me unhappy was inside. I was making myself unhappy. My life - which is to say, those things I spent my waking hours in pursuit of - was ill-fitted to my soul. That sounds dramatic, but it’s not. We get one shot at this. If we spend all our lives in pursuit of something meaningless - specifically, meaningless to us - we will waste our lives.

Ries on one of his many international travels during college.

Ries on one of his many international travels during college.

One of the happiest chapters of my life was the summer before my senior year of college. I traveled Europe, by myself, with hardly anything to my name. Just a backpack and some clothes, far too many cigarettes and no clue where I was going. It wasn’t just the “being young” part. It wasn’t the “Europe is beautiful and you were on an adventure” bit, either. Rather, it was the first time in my life that I let go of expectations that I’d set for myself without ever considering if I wanted those things. Did I want to go to college? I had never asked myself. Did I want to be a writer? Of course! … right? Did I want to drink a lot? As it turns out, I liked drinking - but not to get drunk. It was much nicer to sip beer by a river while reading a book.

Being happy where you are is about being happy with who you are. Who you are is determined by your actions. Your actions must be in pursuit of a version of yourself you like. Don’t fall into the trap of making plans and daydreaming about them. Scouting cities on top ten lists and making plans is all well and good, but only if they are coupled with actions to make them a reality.

When Amanda said she wanted to become a programmer, she applied and was accepted to the Flatiron School. When I said I wanted to a User Experience Designer, I walked away from my comfortable, good paying job to be a broke graduate student with a two year old.

Living - truly living, the out-of-your-backpack type living that Hemingway speaks of - isn’t comfortable for very long. People will think you’re crazy. But there’s a difference between being crazy and being stupid. Even people who jump out of perfectly good airplanes have a plan.

It’s not the plan that makes them skydivers, however.

It’s the jump.

-R