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Joy is hard to measure.

It involves factors as diverse as your personal philosophy; how much money you make; and the quality of your relationships. But there’s something else rarely discussed in the happiness conversation that has a profound impact on your level of contentment: location.

According to new original research combined with the National Geographic Gallup Special Index, certain towns and cities have happier residents. Interestingly, they used three different indices to determine this:

  • Life satisfaction: how you rate your life overall
  • Positive affect: your everyday, in-the-present-moment happiness
  • Purpose: how much meaning you feel you have in your life

Author and happiness researcher Dan Buettner calls these measurements “pride, pleasure and purpose,” and says “enduring happiness is when these three strands are braided together.”

In other words, your happiness has to do with more than just whether you had a good day (positive affect). It’s also about whether you feel your life has meaning and value, and your overall feeling about how well your life is going.

The fact is, where you live influences the day-to-day aspects of your life dramatically. The amount of sunlight you get; how walkable or bikeable your city is; how easy it is to see a friend across town; and the length of your commute are all factors that contribute to making your life either difficult or smooth, miserable or inspiring.

In this study, researchers measured life satisfaction (pride) by asking participants to rate their lives on a scale of 0-10. 

To evaluate positive affect (aka pleasure), they asked people how often they had smiled, laughed or felt joy over the past 24 hours. 

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And to get at purpose (aka wellbeing) participants were asked whether they had “learned or did something interesting yesterday.” This comes straight from Aristotle, who defined true happiness as a “life of meaning.”

While most happiness reports hone in on just one of these different aspects of happiness, this research took them all into account, to came up with the list of the 10 happiest cities in the U.S.:

  1. Boulder, CO
  2. Santa Cruz, CA
  3. Charlottesville, VA
  4. Fort Collins, CO
  5. San Luis Obispo, CA
  6. San Jose, CA
  7. Provo, Utah
  8. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT
  9. Barnstable, MA
  10. Anchorage, AL

Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost 30 percent of the places are in California. There’s really something to be said for near-constant sunshine. Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) is real, and has a dramatic impact on happiness levels for an entire season of the year. And when you’re sad almost every day, it’s hard to rate your life well, or feel natural joy.

Second, almost all the places listed are relatively small, and most are very walkable and/or bikeable. Boulder, for example, has a main strip that’s an entire pedestrian street. A lot of European cities have regions like this — centralized areas where you can safely stroll down the street, where street performers entertain and transfix, and where shops take advantage of foot traffic (because there are actual feet treading upon it).

Such zones make it easy to get together with others, and to meet new people. Community festivals and fairs are also easier to organize and execute. The physicality promotes community, rather than inhibiting it.

Third, many of the towns on the list are close to nature. Santa Cruz boasts any number of beautiful hikes and beaches that are quick and easy to get to. Anchorage is within striking distance of not one, but five national parks, and is probably the only spot on the list from which you’d be at all likely to see a polar bear … so it’s got that going for it. Provo is a beautiful mountain town, and Barnstable is on Cape Cod, right near the beach.

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Two years ago, I moved from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, CA. I can honestly say I’m much happier here on the west coast. While I credit this in large part to my spiritual development, healthy relationships with friends, and current job fit, the location really does make a difference. It’s almost always sunny out when I wake up; I never have to mess with galoshes or shiver on a subway platform; and I get to see beautiful sunsets over the water on a regular basis.

There is no silver bullet when it comes to happiness. It’s a mish-mashed amalgam of your professional alignment, personal relationships, financial status, level of mindfulness, and more.

That said, as the year winds up, you’ll probably be taking more than a few moments to reflect on how far you’ve come, and where you want to go from here.

Consider adding “location” to the list of things you’re evaluating, and whether a move is in order.

Research would suggest you’ll be happier if you do.



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