America’s Most Blissed-Out Cities

Where is your happy place?

Scientists recently reported in the Journal of Human Genetics that people with a gene variation called 5-HTTLPR tend to be happier and more satisfied. Of course we know that a lot more goes into happiness than inborn temperament. And certain factors make people more or less satisfied with their living situation, or more specifically, their city. An avid snowboarder will be miserable in Florida, and a vegetarian might feel out of place in Omaha, Neb. But thankfully, there are more objective measures of happiness, so we delved into the world of statistics to isolate the happiest cities in America.

Here’s how we did it. We know from the research cited in the previous articles in this section that certain factors are associated with happiness. Armed with this knowledge, we isolated 15 categories by which to measure 105 cities from all over the country.

Because healthier people are happier (and vice versa), we used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), which asked residents to rate whether they are in good (or not-so-good) health and if they are getting enough sleep. We know that in general married people are happier than singles, and research conducted by Richard Florida and Irene Tinagli at Carnegie Mellon found that married people are also happier with the places they live, so we factored in the percentage of married couples in each city.

When it comes to income, research has shown that wealth generally is associated with happiness only as far it meets people’s basic needs. When you look at a city where all the residents earn very little, that city may be surprisingly happy because no one feels deprived when comparing themselves to the Joneses next door. The way we can start to measure dissatisfaction is by how disparate the incomes in a city are, so we used the Gini index, a standard measure of income disparity from the U.S. Census Bureau, to gauge the chasm between the haves and have-nots in each town. And because research has shown that the economic climate of a city is highly associated with well-being, we took into account the gross domestic products of each locale and how they have changed over the last year.

As for education, the Florida/Tinagli research mentioned earlier also determined that people who never graduated high school were twice as likely to report being unsatisfied with their community, compared to those with university degrees. Therefore, the numbers of graduate degrees and high school dropouts were taken into account.

According to the Human Thriving Foundation, factors such as volunteering and exercise are highly connected to a person’s sense of happiness, so we included exercise activity, as reported by the BRFSS, and the percentage of residents who volunteered, courtesy of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

We would be remiss if we didn’t factor in the basic tenets of happy city living, such as low crime rates, ease of travel through the city and job availability. Crunching all this data together, using these sources, we came up with this list of 10 cities where happiness reigns. 

The Number 1 Happiest City in the United States is … 


1. Arlington, Va.

Hugging the historic Potomac River, Arlington is more than just a suburb of our nation’s capital—it’s a prospering city in its own right. With the city’s proximity to government jobs and its low crime rate (perhaps living near the Pentagon helps), Arlingtonians manage to find time to exercise and enjoy nearly 1,300 acres of city parkland. More than 40 percent of the population is married, and unemployment is well below the national average. Arlington’s residents are also well-educated, with nearly 37 percent holding college degrees or more.


2. Sioux Falls, S.D.

Perhaps the sound of the falls of the Big Sioux River creates a feeling of tranquility among the citizens of Sioux Falls. Residents love to help, with nearly 40 percent volunteering. And it’s not because they have nothing better to do: Unemployment is a low 4.3 percent. Getting around Sioux Falls is a breeze; you can get anywhere in the city within 15 to 20 minutes, which means city residents are happily on their way to work or play, enjoying all the city has to offer.


3. Madison, Wis.

Home of the University of Wisconsin, with plenty of green space and abutting a large lake, Madison offers its environmentally conscious residents a city with plenty of options for healthy, happy living. Traffic moves well, unemployment is low and residents ranked high in a Gallup poll measuring well-being. Canoeing and biking opportunities abound.


4. Durham, N.C.

This city’s GDP is increasing, and residents are well-educated and take care of themselves, with nearly 30 percent reporting they are in excellent health. Home of Duke University and the esteemed Duke Medical Center, Durham provides plenty of job opportunities to keep residents busy and upbeat. The art scene includes the Nasher Museum, Durham Symphony and Durham Art Walk.


5. St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minn.

If you want to increase the odds of being satisfied, the Twin Cities offers a double dose of happy. Both cities scored well, with low unemployment, high volunteer rates, excellent health—and the residents report consistently getting a good night’s sleep. Ahhh.


6. Boulder, Colo.

The smallest city on our list, Boulder offers tranquil vistas of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and beautiful Flatirons, which might help explain why its citizens rated themselves the highest in well-being of all those we studied. Like other top-10 cities, Boulder is home to a college, the University of Colorado, and its residents boast good health, education and the volunteer spirit, with nearly 45 percent of the population helping out.


7. Overland Park, Kan.

Because of its proximity to Kansas City, Overland Park residents enjoy all the benefits of the larger city’s jazz and barbecue culture without the hassles of big-city living. With a low crime rate, little income inequality and a high marriage rate, Overland Park is a very contented suburb.


8. Stamford, Conn.

A coastal community along Connecticut’s shoreline, Stamford has seen double-digit decreases in crime and is home to several sports-related companies, including professional wrestling’s WWE. Nearly 50 percent of Stamford residents are married and enjoy safe, cozy living in this town that marries beach and big-city living.


9. Austin, Texas

It’s no wonder Austinites are happy in their self-titled “music capital of the world,” with access to loads of live music, miles of hiking and biking trails, and 300 days of sunshine every year. To top it off, the city has seen a 7 percent increase in its GDP while residents overwhelmingly report they are in terrific health.


10. Lincoln, Neb.

A big city on the prairie, Lincoln offers culture, education and access to quality healthcare in the Midwest. High marriage rates, little income inequality and low unemployment probably contributed to the 70 percent of residents who told Gallup that Lincoln just keeps getting better as a place to live.

Your city not on the top 10? See the complete list of 100 happiest (and not so happy) cities.

Swing Cities

Some factors we looked at in determining the happiest U.S. cities are more under our control than others. For example, we choose whether to be social, marry, exercise, get enough sleep and volunteer—all things that improve well-being. But other characteristics that describe a city may exist outside an individual’s control. Unless you’re Batman, you alone can’t have much impact on the crime rate. And unless you’re Bruce Wayne, you alone may not create a significant number of jobs.

We wanted to see which cities had the best “bones” regardless of its citizens’ choices. So we looked only at those cities that were low in crime, had a strong gross domestic product, plenty of jobs and minimal gridlock. The following 10 cities did best when controlled solely for those measures.

l. Madison, Wis.

2. Boulder, Colo.

3. Arlington, Va.

4. Sioux Falls, S.D.

5. Ann Arbor, Mich.

6. Knoxville, Tenn.

7. Honolulu, Hawaii

8. Worcester, Mass.

9. Raleigh, N.C.

10. Des Moines, Iowa

If you live in any of these cities, your odds of a nice life are high. Layer on some happy-making behaviors and your chances get upped to excellent.  

  Down Towns

It’s hard to kick a city when it’s suffering, but as Detroit edges near bankruptcy, it’s not surprising that its citizens can’t muster the energy to volunteer or take care of their health, thus earning a spot as the unhappiest city on our list. Many of the cities that ranked on the bottom of our list have citizens who seem to share a sense of uncertainty about the future because of unstable housing markets (Las Vegas is a real estate ghost town) and/or high unemployment (Memphis, Las Vegas, Detroit and Philadelphia are all above the national average). More reasons for worry: their hometowns’ economic sustainability and increases in crime. Here are the five unhappiest cities:

1. Detroit

2. Miami

3. Las Vegas

4. Memphis, Tenn.

5. Philadelphia

We hear good things about Prozac.   


Discover more about happiness—what it is and how to achieve it—in The SUCCESS Guide to Happiness.


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