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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#10: Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage is the starting point for countless Alaskan adventures, with five national parks nearby and plenty of daylight during the summer.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#22: Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minnesota/Wisconsin

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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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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 happiest.

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 Happiness advances 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 everywhere.

Read the November cover story and join the conversation on the world’s happiest places by visiting #QuestForHappiness.


George Stone is the Editor-in-Chief of Traveler magazine at National Geographic. You can follow him and his travels on Twitter.
 

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