Happiness perceived differently in Boston, San Francisco, study shows

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Residents of San Francisco define happiness differently than Boston residents do, according to a new study.

Bostonians placed overwhelming importance on educational attainment, finances, family support and contribution to others as markers of self-satisfaction, while residents of San Francisco tied satisfaction of their life to work, according a study by UC Berkeley School of Law professor Victoria Plaut released this month.

“I am by no means asserting that all Bostonians are one way and all San Franciscans are another way,” Plaut said. “But local environment definitely shapes people in dramatic ways.”

Plaut conducted a random mail survey of more than 3,400 residents of both cities and found that the differences in the two cities’ environments can be credited to their divergent histories, Plaut said.

Because it was settled by Puritans looking for religious freedom, Boston holds a strong tradition of hierarchy and community at the core of its founding philosophy, the study states.

“People have a lot of pride about being from Boston,” said Sofie Karasek, a UC Berkeley sophomore from Cambridge, Mass. “There are families that have lived in Boston for generations. Attend one Red Sox game, and you will realize how much of an intimately united community Boston is.”

The study found that residents of Boston feel that they must abide by certain expectations of social norms and behavior. Furthermore, it contends that social pressure and the attention residents pay to how others perceive them increase the sense of community felt among Bostonians.

Hank Lee, a freshman at UC Berkeley who attended a boarding high school in Deerfield, Mass., said he felt the pressure at his school.

“I always had to be careful,” Lee said. “Everything I did had to be geared towards a purpose. You always have to be vigilant about how others view you. Tradition was important. I had to wear ties to class and observe strict table etiquette.”

However, the study found that residents of San Francisco placed less of an emphasis on educational attainment and family support than residents of Boston. It found that because residents were more individualistic than residents of Boston, they felt less of a sense of community with one another.

“San Francisco has been a place to go to reinvent yourself, a place of unlimited possibility,” said Plaut. “This historical context formed a social norm. A perpetuation of social norms creates cultural products, perception of the norm, and group psychology.”

She said that the gold rush of the 1840s stimulated that city’s explosive growth, drawing pioneers and fortune seekers and giving the region a reputation of being pioneering and risk-taking that still exists in the region today.

“The nature of San Francisco allows people to be who they want to be,” said Laila Soudi, a UC Berkeley junior from San Francisco. “Of course social norms exist. But I am sure it is much less so in comparison to other cities.”

Contact Dan Kwak at [email protected].