Many moons ago, I found myself still in a job that was well beyond its sell-by date. I was also living in a city that for a variety of reasons was not the best fit for me. I was applying for positions in other countries, but things were not moving quickly enough – and I found myself fantasizing about just turning in my notice and heading out into the world. The question then was where I would go.
I spent a lot of time googling things like “Where should I live?” and was amazed at some of the interesting results that popped up. The most helpful was a very detailed quiz that not only asked for basic demographic information (such as your age and marital status) but required you to rate the importance that you give to a whole range of items – from cultural events to local professional sports teams to geographical features. It was incredibly comprehensive, unlike the bajillion quizzes that seem to have taken over Facebook in recent years. Once you fed in all of your responses, the site spit out a few recommendations (one of which I did actually follow when I later did quit on the spur of the moment).
That simple little quiz had a far-reaching impact on my thinking. In essence, it made me understand that instead of evaluating a particular place (Do I want to go to x?), it’s helpful to turn things around and focus on what your looking for – and then find a place that matches those criteria. Among other things, doing so makes you really focus on factors that will ensure you have whatever quality of life (or travel experience) you are after. It’s easy to get caught up in a romantic ideal of a location without realizing that it’s probably not the best match for you when you break things down. In converse, it’s also possible to put places on the “no-go” list without really giving them a fair chance – perhaps based on one or two stories you’ve heard or some negative stereotypes.
As I’ve been wandering around Colombo and trying to decide how I feel about the place, I’ve found myself thinking more critically about the factors that make a city or country appeal to me. I’ve also realized that I’ve started making decisions to go places “just because” (or as a result of a conversation about banana curry with a friend in Berlin, which is a story for another time). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and sometimes I find it fun to go places on a bit of a whim or a hunch. However, I think making a little effort to see if a place is really going to suit you often pays off.
It thus seemed like a good time to put together a more thorough list of the quality of life factors that currently make for a happy and healthy me. I share this list not because I think anyone reading this is really dying to know my particular preferences, but in the hope that it may lead you to ponder your own factors.
- People who are interested, interesting, and kind. That about sums it up. Interestingly, I don’t factor language much into the equation.
- Active groups on meetup.com, Facebook, etc. or other ways to connect with people. I really appreciate places where it’s easy to find ways to socialize (although I’ll readily admit that I sometimes don’t take advantage of them).
- Cultural diversity. I tend to like locations with a blend of cultures or a bit of an international vibe.
- Easily navigable and accessible public transport, which I prefer if I’m not moving around a city on my own steam (by foot or bike). Besides being environmentally friendly and usually quite convenient and reasonably priced, public transport is also a great way to watch people and see new parts of town. Having to rely on a scooter, motorbike taxis, or tuk-tuks does not being me joy.
- Zebra crossings — and drivers who respect them. Being a pedestrian can be hard without them, damn it.
Things to see and do
- A tourist information office stocked with good maps and brochures. I’m a bit old school in this regard. I read a lot of stuff online, but I love going to the tourist office to stock up on reading material and get some tips.
- Pleasant parks with good benches. Exploring a park and then finding a comfortable spot to read or just stare into space for a while is one of my favorite good weather activities.
- Art museums. I go to other types of museums as well, but seeing art is generally at the top of my list.
- Interesting day trip options. It’s wonderful to be able to venture out of the city to see some of the surrounding area.
- A cinema that plays movies in English or with English subtitles. Catching a matinee is my idea of deliciousness.
- Interesting special events (such as film festivals, cultural festivals, workshops, lectures). It’s always fabulous when you have a chance to experience something new and unique.
- Gyms with short-term membership options. The gym is my happy place, and being able to go several times a week is one of the few things I miss as a nomad.
- Easily accessible yoga classes. Yoga is the best way I’ve found to keep my mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health in check.
- Bike-ability. This falls more into the bonus point category, as a number of factors need to fall into alignment (at least for me) – including access to a bike, good bike lanes/traffic awareness, and the right weather and terrain. But when things come together and I can tool around on two wheels, my quality of life increases exponentially.
- A wide range of fresh and affordable produce (with bonus points for good markets). Fruits and vegetables constitute a significant part of my diet, and I enjoy being able to take advantage of whatever is in season locally.
- A source for vegan baked goods. I love my greens and beans but I’m definitely no saint; my sweet tooth needs regular tending to, thank you very much.
- Cheap and easy to purchase prepaid SIM card options. It’s great to have a way to check information on the fly and keep in touch with people locally.
- Decent WiFi. No comment necessary.
(Note: I didn’t include weather, as in most places it’s such a variable factor – but I’m definitely drawn to warmer weather in general.)
If you haven’t tried making your own list of quality of life or experience indicators to help you pick your own destinations, I encourage you to give it a try – it’s quite a revealing exercise and can lead to a helpful decision-making tool. If you’re like me, you might also find it a good reminder that happiness is often driven by pretty simple things.
When I tested my list by running various locations through it, I found that places I’m really big on these days do check all or most of the boxes — which I’d say means it’s fairly spot on. The findings have already proven helpful, even for picking a new part of town to use as a base next month. I was sure to choose a neighborhood that has a few nice gyms and may have even checked that it’s eligible for a vegan brownie delivery service that I’ve discovered (wowza!). Colombo, you’re getting better and better…
(@Galle, Sri Lanka)