These Are the Happiest Cities in the United States
National Geographic Explorer and best-selling author Dan Buettner searched for the happiest Americans. Where he found them will surprise you.
By George Stone
#1: Boulder, Colorado
Boulder, Colorado—the happiest city in America according to the National Geographic Gallup Special Index—is best explored on two wheels, with over more than 300 miles of dedicated bikeways.
Photograph by rafalkrakow/istock editorial, Getty Images
#2: Santa Cruz-Watsonville
The Santa Cruz-Watsonville area on California’s central coast boasts beautiful beaches, a family-friendly boardwalk, and one of the state’s oldest amusement parks—all overlooking stunning Monterey Bay.
Photograph by Rebecca Stunell, Alamy Stock Photo
#3: Charlottesville, Virginia
Along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville, Virginia, has ample opportunities for getting outdoors between visits to Monticello and the University of Virginia—both listed as World Heritage sites.
Photograph by JMichl/istockphoto, Getty Images
#4: Fort Collins, Colorado
The historic storefronts in Fort Collins, Colorado’s Old Town inspired the design of Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. Add in its views of the Rocky Mountains, and it’s no wonder Fort Collins ranks among the happiest cities in America.
Photograph by Marek Uliasz, Alamy Stock Photo
#5: San Luis Obispo, California
The area around San Luis Obispo, California, has no shortage of incredible day trips. Locals and visitors can relax at wineries, explore sand dunes, or take in coastal views along hiking and biking trails.
Photograph by Corey Jenkins/Image Source, Getty Images
#6: San Jose, California
Known for being the capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose, California, is located on the southern shore of the San Francisco Bay and sees about 300 days of sunshine each year.
Photograph by Frank Chen, Getty Images
#7: Provo, Utah
The third largest city in Utah, Provo sits between Utah Lake and the Wasatch Range. This makes for an intoxicating blend of city culture and outdoor recreation, with fishing, hiking, and rafting all just a stone’s throw away.
Photograph by Wray Sinclair, Aurora Photos
#8: Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut
Just 40 miles from New York City, Connecticut’s Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metro area has endless cultural experiences nearby. But many locals stay put for work: The region has one of the largest concentrations of corporations in the country.
Photograph by Andre Jenny, Alamy Stock Photo
#9: Barnstable Town, Massachusetts
Situated on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the Town of Barnstable stretches between Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay. It’s made up of seven idyllic villages, including Hyannis.
Photograph by Radius Images, Alamy Stock Photo
#10: Anchorage, Alaska
Anchorage is the starting point for countless Alaskan adventures, with five national parks nearby and plenty of daylight during the summer.
Photograph by HagePhoto, Aurora Photos
#11: Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, Florida
The metropolitan area around Naples, Florida, is one of the wealthiest in the country. With its tropical climate and Gulf Coast beaches, its draw is no mystery.
Photograph by Fraser Hall/Robert Harding Picture Library, Aurora Photos
#12: Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, California
The Santa Maria-Santa Barbara metro area, about a hundred miles from Los Angeles, has plenty to see in its own right. Walkable streets, beach and mountain views, and a Mediterranean climate make this “American Riviera” a Pacific Coast gem.
Photograph by Leonid Serebrennikov, Alamy Stock Photo
#13: Salinas, California
Salinas, California, was the hometown of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, who based many of his novels here. Fans of his work can visit the Steinbeck House (his boyhood home) and the National Steinbeck Center.
Photograph by jejim120, Alamy Stock Photo
#14: North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, Florida
One of the unique attractions in the Sarasota metropolitan area, on Florida’s west coast, is the Ringling, where John and Mable Ringling of circus fame lived. Today visitors can tour art galleries, rose gardens, circus exhibits, and the Ringlings’ Venetian Gothic style mansion.
Photograph by UIG, Getty Images
#15: Honolulu, Hawaii
Round Top Drive, a road on the National Register of Historic Places, provides a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of downtown Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii.
Photograph by Grant Taylor, Alamy Stock Photo
#16: Ann Arbor, Michigan
More than 40,000 University of Michigan students flock to Ann Arbor, Michigan, every fall. The university’s football stadium, called the Big House, is the largest stadium in the United States.
Photograph by Tom Pidgeon, Getty Images
#17: San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California
San Francisco, California’s steep hills inspired its famous cable car system. Inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie wanted to create a safe mode of transport around the hilly city. His cable car system began operating in 1873.
Photograph by Matthew Wakem, Aurora Photos
#18: Colorado Springs, Colorado
Located near the base of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado, sits more than a mile above sea level. The stunning red rock formations in the city’s Garden of the Gods draw some two million visitors every year.
Photograph by KEITH LADZINSKI, National Geographic Creative
#19: Manchester-Nashua, New Hampshire
Situated along the banks of the Merrimack River, Manchester, New Hampshire, is the largest city in the Granite State. It’s just an hour’s drive from Boston, the Atlantic Coast, and the White Mountains.
Photograph by Sean Pavone, Alamy Stock Photo
#20: Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, California
It’s no surprise that California is home to many of the happiest places in America, including Ventura. With its combination of great weather, beaches, and nearby national forests, adventure awaits around every corner.
Photograph by Michael Hanson, Aurora Photos
#21: Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, District of Columbia/Virginia
Most think of Washington, D.C., as the capital of the free world, but to locals, it’s simply a great place to live. Aside from free museums and lots of green space, the city has enjoyed a booming food scene in recent years.
With more than a hundred miles of ski trails nearby, Minnesota’s Twin Cities have winter lovers covered. Once the snow thaws, summer festivals take over the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Photograph by JMichl/istockphoto, Getty Images
#23: San Diego-Carlsbad, California
Visitors come from all over the world to Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre oasis in San Diego, California. The urban park includes the famous San Diego Zoo, home to more than 3,500 animals.
Photograph by Sean Pavone, Alamy Stock Photo
#24: Portland, Maine
The greater metropolitan area around Portland, Maine, is home to a third of the state’s residents. It ranks among the happiest cities in the United States, based on metrics like walkability, access to nature, and civic engagement.
Photograph by Oleg Albinsky/istockphoto, Getty Images
#25: Austin, Texas
Within Austin’s Zilker Park is Barton Springs, a three-acre pool with water sourced from underground springs. People from all walks of life take advantage of this year-round pool, from swimmers and sunbathers, to locals keeping cool in the Texas heat.
Photograph by Daniel R Westergren, National Geographic Creative
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Who are the happiest Americans? Ask this question anywhere from Montauk
to Maui and you’re bound to pique interest (you may even pick a fight).
While fans of the film Moana might sing the lyrics “Happiness is where
you are,” for scientists studying the roots and fruits of happiness, location-specific
qualities of place, community, and opportunity powerfully inform the way
we feel about our lives.
National Geographic bestselling author Dan Buettner and Gallup’s social
scientists teamed up to develop an index that assesses measurable expressions
of happiness and identifies where Americans are living their best lives. Designed by Gallup senior
scientist Dan Witters, the study established 15 metrics—from eating healthy
and learning something new every day to civic engagement, financial security,
vacation time, and even dental checkups—that signal happiness. The National
Geographic Gallup Special/Blue Zones Index draws on nearly 250,000 interviews
conducted with adults from 2014 to 2015 in 190 metropolitan areas across
the U.S as part of the Gallup-Sharecare Well Being Index.
The winner: Boulder, Colorado. Bolstered by a sense of community, access
to nature, sustainable urban development and preservation policies, and
perhaps even that clean mountain air, Boulderites overwhelmingly feel “active
and productive every day,” according to Buettner’s research. Per capita,
more people walk to work in Boulder than in any other city in the U.S.
Low rates of smoking and obesity, and high rates of exercise, contribute
to the satisfaction locals feel. Life is not always rosy in the Rockies—stress
is on the rise; on average, 49 percent of locals surveyed reported feeling
stress—but the qualities that keep Boulder on top make this city America’s
9 Easy Ways to Find Happiness Every Day
National Geographic’s list of the 25 Happiest Places in the United States
includes cities from Ann Arbor to Austin, San Diego to Charlottesville.
At the bottom of the index (not included in our list) are America’s least-happy
places, according to the study: Charleston, West Virginia; Fort Smith, Arkansas; and Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, North Carolina. Research indicates that the variabilities
of place play an important role in whether locals feel happy. In happier
places, according to Buettner, locals smile and laugh more often, socialize
several hours a day, have access to green spaces, and feel that they are
making purposeful progress toward achieving life goals. For our index,
it tracked factors that are statistically associated with doing well and
feeling well; these include feeling secure, taking vacations, and having
enough money to cover basic needs.
Buettner reports on the qualities that make Boulder a happy place in
November’s National Geographic cover story.His article focuses
on three strands of happiness—pleasure, pride, and purpose—that lead to
a resilient sense of well-being in cities around the world, from Europe,
to Asia, to Central America. His new book, The Blue Zones of Happinessadvances
his premise that improved environments lead to increased happiness.
A “happiness planner” by trade, Buettner is also a passionate traveler.
His work unites his zeal for exploring new places and asking questions
with his skill in statistical research and adroitness at weaving compelling
stories. The same qualities of place that inform our list of the 25 Happiest
Places in the United States also influence travelers’ experiences. Happy
places for locals tend to be hospitable places for visitors.
“There’s a high correlation between bikeability and happiness in a city.
In Boulder you’re more likely to hear the whoosh of a cyclist than the
shrill of a siren compared to places like Dallas, Tallahassee, or Los Angeles.
Cities like Boulder question the unquestioned virtues of development,”
says Buettner. “This benefits visitors, who can experience an emphasis
on greenery, a high-quality culinary community, limited marketing onslaught
and no billboards.”
Among the surprises Buettner turned up while drilling down into his place-based
research: “There’s a strong correlation between quality of water and happiness.
And places where people frequent their dentists report being more satisfied
with their lives,” he says.
The greater message, for locals and travelers alike, is that happiness
doesn’t just happen. “There’s a genesis to it. Enlightened leaders make
conscious decisions to favor quality of life over economic development
or political expediency,” Buettner notes.
For visitors eager to take their own measure of America’s happiest places,
Buettner’s advice is simple: linger longer, stay in a B&B, and walk
a lot (though perhaps not to the dentist’s office). “My findings indicate
that if you want to get happy, don’t try to change your belief system.
Change your environment,” Buettner says. A call to action for travelers