At 30, I realised my London media career may not have been as fulfilling as my old friends' quiet lives in Suffolk. Goddammit.
One of the worst stereotypes of big-city career ladder climbers is that they consider themselves better than people who live in small towns. They can't imagine why anyone would want things like strong family networks and affordable housing over pop-up Korean restaurants and the ability to buy booze after midnight. As you move from teens to 20s to 30s, there's the sense that you have to choose between a great job title and shared flat with damp problems, and sticky-fingered babies in towns where Uber doesn't run and shops shut at 6pm on a Saturday.
Happiness indices point out similar issues each year that most likely contribute to people's well-being – money, proximity to family, a feeling that what you do is worthwhile, nice weather – but there also isn't necessarily one route to contentment. "What society teaches about finding fulfillment in life isn't the formula for everyone," says Laura Carroll, author of The Baby Matrix and a general expert on not growing up like your grandparents did. "We have to focus less on the 'life script' society pressures us to adopt, and more on creating a life that makes us happy – as we define it."
As the years roll on and I've found myself increasingly jaded about my mid-level media career, I start to wonder whether the "boring" route might have been the better one. The "happy families" Facebook pictures and new-build homes that I used to scoff at now spark twinges of jealousy. Dammit.
"If you know you want a family one day, then you need to be realistic," fertility expert Emma Cannon tells me. "Statistically if you want two children, you'll have more chance if you have your first before the age of 30. At 30 the chances of conceiving each month are 20 per cent and at 40, this reduces to 5 per cent." Ah. Cheery stuff for those who don't decide on children early, then. Carroll says that "settling down doesn't automatically lead to greater life satisfaction", but living in London hasn't given me financial stability, a loving relationship, or a neatly planned-out future. Were these people, whose lives I used to sneer at, now happier than me? I decided to ask, speaking to four friends back in Ipswich aged between 27 and 31, and all at different life stages.
Sherise, 28, teacher
VICE: What's your living situation like right now?
I've just bought a house with my boyfriend, which we're renovating. We wouldn't have been able to do it without living at my parents'.
What do you like about Ipswich?
Having my family so close. I know when we have children, my mum will be nearby to help out. I have lots of friends, too, and a job I love.
What's not so good?
It's small and everyone knows everyone – not great when I bump into my students' parents on nights out.
Do you encounter snobbery from friends who've moved away?
Yes, I have friends who are totally fixated on living in London. They'll come home and say, "Oh, I feel so sorry for you being stuck here." But it bothers me far less these days.
What's the key to a happy life for you?
Having a good work-life balance, and being with my boyfriend, friends and family. So I guess that's Ipswich!
Hannah, 31, mature student
VICE: How would you describe your home life?
I've got a 12-year-old son, and a baby on the way. I live with my fiance and am in my last year of a social work degree.
What's the upside to staying in your hometown?
It's better economically. I received a bursary for students from the local area, which meant I could return to education. But I'm here out of necessity, rather than choice - I have a child in school.
What don't you like about it?
It's not very diverse, and there's a lot of cultural ignorance.
Would you recommend your children stay here?
To be honest, I'd encourage them to move away, just for the life experience. I do feel I missed out a bit.
What's a happy life for you?
Financial security. I'm not materialistic, but it's no fun being stressed about money. And, personally, I need access to art galleries and theatres.
Justine, 27, engineering manager
VICE: What life stage are you in?
I live with my boyfriend, who I've been with since I was 16, and we're thinking about emigrating to the US or Canada in the next few years.
Why did you stay in Ipswich?
I stayed at home to do my degree, because I was in a relationship here – there wasn't anything drawing me anywhere else. Often, I'll hear people say, "I can't wait to leave this town," but when you ask them why they can never give a proper answer. I think it's something they just feel like they have to do.
What's made you consider emigrating?
We went travelling around the USA – where I have family – and couldn't help wondering if we could have a better quality of life elsewhere. It's not that we're unhappy where we are, we're just wondering, Is this it?
What's happiness for you?
Having a job you love. And good relationships, whether that's with your family, friends or a partner.
Lauren, 27, social worker
VICE: Why did you stay in Ipswich?
I stayed at home for uni. I was in a relationship with a footballer, and his career ended up coming first. I was young and naive, thinking I had to stay around a boyfriend.
What's the upside to staying in your hometown?
I own two properties, which I rent out – there's no way I could've done that if I hadn't been at home. It's put me in a good financial position. I've also got a strong social circle here.
And the downside?
I hate how early everything closes. Also, I'm single – and happy – while most people here are focussed on marriage and kids. I don't think it's as bad as people make out, though. It's just like anywhere else, really.
Do you think you'll ever move?
I've always thought about moving, and still consider it, but it's so difficult to build a social circle from scratch. I've done placements in other cities, and been travelling, but always end up coming back.
What's key to a happy life for you?
Being happy with what you have, having the confidence to be yourself, and following your own vision.