According to this year’s Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index for the United States, Silicon Valley boasts the best quality of life in the entire country. The New York Times published a handy interactive map of the Index this weekend.
While the Times chose to review the results by state – where Hawaii comes out top – the results were actually compiled by congressional district. Of those, California’s district 14, which pretty much contains the entire Valley, was the highest ranked.
The Index was derived by aggregating measures of reported happiness, education, health insurance, job satisfaction, community safety and other factors that together make somewhere a good place to live.
To some of us who inhabit the Valley, our preeminence was a surprise. There’s really nowhere else better? In the entire nation? After all, the area is stupendously expensive. Try buying a house here. Or a tank of gas. And this is a place where everyone works insanely hard. They’re super-competitive. Commutes can be crazy. There’s very little job security.
But many of these negatives reflect something that’s arguably also very positive about the place: that a lot of people here are very good at what they do. That means they get paid well, and wealth correlates very neatly with contributory factors to well-being such as access to housing, health care, good food, and clean air.
To be good at what you do also takes caring about your work. That can produce stress by the bucketful, but in the right environment it promotes job satisfaction, too, and the flip side of the Valley’s poor job security is that its inhabitants feel free to leave any job, anytime, whenever they’re presented with a better opportunity.
Most crucially, then, the place offers – even in a recession – money and possibility, and maybe that’s what really puts us at the top.
The Valley remains full of people with new ideas, launching new ventures, making all kinds of deals every day with — and here’s the kicker — a small but genuine chance of actually succeeding. Plenty fail, for sure, but even that is understood as a learning experience here and not a judgement on your character for life. And that freeing, energizing potentiality rubs off even on those who simply service the more entrepreneurial among us.
Paul Graham, the founder of the startup incubator Y-Combinator, wrote an essay a few years ago entitled ‘How to Be Silicon Valley,’ that imagined what it would take to reproduce the Valley somewhere else. You’d need only three things, he argued: rich people, nerds, and a place they both want to live. Such a place would likely have a university, he suggests (nerds like to live among smart people), and also be “the kind of town where people walk around smiling.”
It’s a cute line but perceptive, too.
A smiling citizenry is either complacent or still hopeful about its future. We have plenty of wealthy people here who can afford complacence, but what’s remarkable is how many of them remain engaged as financial supporters of young people looking to make it themselves.
The rest of us, meanwhile, may not be rich enough to feel self-satisfied, but the sense of sheer possibility that permeates the culture in which we’ve chosen to live – for all that it makes the region a popular and thus breathtakingly expensive place to inhabit – is a great generator of grounded, realistic hopefulness. And isn’t that, in many ways, the ultimate marker of personal well-being?