Ask people where the happiest Americans live, and chances are Charlottesville would not be their immediate answer. In August, the college town became a crucible of ugly forces when hundreds of white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters in the streets, leaving 19 injured and killing one.
Yet the best-selling author of “The Blue Zones Solution” just named Charlottesville No. 3, behind Boulder, Colo., and Santa Cruz -Watsonville, Calif., on his list of the 25 happiest cities in the country.
Dan Buettner, whose book detailed the lifestyle habits of the world’s longest-lived and healthiest people and who has now teamed up with researchers from National Geographic and Gallup to develop the national well-being index and rankings, explained happiness has to be measured holistically and over time.
“If we took the happiness measurement the day after your city team lost the Super Bowl, people would be unhappy . . . it’s really only valid if you do it over a period of years,” Buettner said. “This whole index metabolizes one and a half million surveys done over a five-year period. It kind of averages out when good things happen, and when bad things happen.”
Another arguably surprising appearance on the list is Washington, D.C., and the surrounding Arlington and Alexandria area, which came in 21st out of 25 of America’s happiest cities — despite the rancorous, polarized state of politics in the nation’s capital.
Buettner said in the grand scheme of things, more concrete, measurable factors — such as walkability, bikeability, and a sense of health and security — may trump the stress of politics inside the Capital Beltway.
“Apparently, the political oscillations aren’t weighing down on people as much as we might think,” Buettner said. Over a period of a few years, and averaging in the political rancor with other factors, “it washes out a little bit . . . and these other more solid virtues of Washington will come to the fore.”
Drawing on interviews in 190 metropolitan areas across the country as part of the Gallup-Sharecare Well Being Index, they established 15 metrics — including civic engagement, financial security, vacation time, and availability of healthy food — to determine the 25 happiest places in the United States. Their research is detailed in greater length in the National Geographic’s November cover story, and in Buettner’s newly published book, “The Blue Zones of Happiness.”
“Happiness, academically speaking, is a meaningless term because you can’t measure it,” Buettner said, but the researchers sought to quantify it by breaking it down into three things: pride, or how one evaluates one’s life as a whole; pleasure, or day-to-day happiness; and purpose, or whether one feels one has meaning in life.
The researchers found the happiest cities were primarily clustered on the coasts, with a smattering in the middle. California has the most with eight; Colorado comes in next with three. Boulder, Colo., topped the list due to its walkability, access to nature and sense of community.
While happiness in these 25 cities may be noteworthy, the overall level of happiness across the country has actually declined steadily in the past decade, according to this year’s World Happiness Report, published in April.
Writing in the report, economist Jeffrey Sachs pointed to various reasons for America’s malaise: mega-dollars in U.S. politics; income and wealth inequality; decline in social trust; the repercussions of the war on terror; and the sad state of the country’s educational system.
“In sum, the United States offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness ‘in all the wrong places,’ ” Sachs wrote. “The country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse . . . To escape this social quagmire, America’s happiness agenda should center on rebuilding social capital.”
Buettner agrees. Whether it’s Denmark, Costa Rica, or Singapore — the three happiest countries in the world, according to his research — there is a recognition that being solely fixated on economic development will not cut it, and there needs to be investment in quality social services too, he said. The happiest cities in America, he added, intentionally set policies that favor quality of life.
“Happiness isn’t a coincidence,” Buettner said. “There’s always a clear genesis.”
As for Charlottesville, this is not the first time it has been named one of the happiest places in the country. Back in 2014, the National Bureau of Economic Research ranked the Southern city America’s happiest. Mayor Mike Signer isn’t surprised his city is on the list this time, the turmoil of August notwithstanding.
“Charlottesville is certainly not perfect, but we are charming, diverse, tolerant, progressive, welcoming, beautiful, and one of the world’s truly great cities,” Signer wrote in an email. “Those values made us a target for the bigots who invaded us from 31 states on 8/12. But they will never change us, or make us any less happy about our City. For any doubters: Come visit – you’ll be happy you did.”
Here is the full list of the 25 Happiest Cities in the United States:
- Boulder, Colo.
- Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Calif.
- Fort Collins, Colo.
- San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, Calif.
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.
- Provo-Orem, Utah
- Bridgeport-Stamford, Conn.
- Barnstable Town, Mass.
- Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, Fla.
- Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, Calif.
- Salinas, Calif.
- North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, Fla.
- Urban Honolulu
- Ann Arbor, Mich.
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, Calif.
- Colorado Springs
- Manchester-Nashua, N.H.
- Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, Calif.
- Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
- Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI
- San Diego-Carlsbad, Calif.
- Portland-South Portland, Maine
- Austin-Round Rock, Tex.