Special Report

The Happiest (and Most Miserable) Cities in America

In the United States Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness is considered an inalienable right of all Americans. Finding happiness and fulfillment, however, is no easy feat, and some have had far more success than others. Well-being varies considerably across the country.

To capture Americans’ general well-being, Gallup surveyed 354,473 people to build the Well-Being Index in partnership with health and wellness organization Healthways. The index measures whether individuals feel a sense of purpose, have supportive relationships, are financially secure, satisfied with their community, and are in good physical health.

Based on survey results for 189 U.S. metropolitan areas provided by Gallup-Healthways, residents of the Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, Florida metro area report the highest well-being. Residents of Fort Smith, which straddles the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, report the lowest well-being.

Click here to see the happiest cities in America.

Click here to see the most miserable cities in America.

In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Dan Witters, research director of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, named several sentiments that illustrate well-being in the top cities of the index.

“Emotional attachment to the area where you live” is a significant commonality in the highest well-being areas, he said. In 18 of the 25 happiest cities, at least 75.0% of residents believe their home is ideal for their family, versus 72.8% of survey respondents nationwide. In 21 of the 25 metro areas with the lowest well-being, on the other hand, the share of residents who believe their home is ideal is smaller than the 72.8% national figure.

Financial stability and money management are also indispensable components of well-being. Gallup asked respondents whether they have enough money to do everything they want to do. In 23 of the 25 happiest cities, the share of residents who report having enough money to do what they want is larger than the 43% of Americans who report such financial security. The opposite is generally true in low well-being cities.

Peace of mind from financial stability and other positive feelings among a city’s happy residents can be partially attributed to higher income levels, as well as other advantages. The median household income in a majority of the 25 highest well-being metro areas is well above the national median of $55,775 a year, while a majority of low well-being cities report lower incomes. And in 17 of the 25 happiest cities, the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree exceeds the national share of 30.6%.

Witters noted high college attainment can explain the high incomes common in the areas with the highest levels of well-being. Further, “with greater levels of health literacy comes greater mindfulness of things related to the pursuit of high well-being lifestyles,” he said.

Healthy behaviors and physical health are prominent features of the 25 top cities. By contrast, residents of low well-being areas tend to report relatively poor health factors. In 20 of the 25 least happy cities, the share of adults who do not exercise regularly is larger than the 23% national figure.

Poor physical health can be a major obstacle to well-being. Poor health is cited as a hindrance to physical activity by 26% of people nationwide. In 20 of the 25 lowest well-being cities, at least 28% of residents stated that poor health has kept them from going about their daily activities.

Underlying social and economic conditions do not fully account for the level of well-being across metropolitan areas. Healthways President Karissa Price said, “[Well-being] is not an accident, it’s not naturally occurring.” Planned strategies that lead to well-being are frequently at the heart of flourishing communities.

Through initiatives such as the popular Blue Zones Project and Walking School Bus program, Healthways researchers have found that targeted initiatives can often improve well-being across multiple elements — physical, social, financial, community, purpose — at once.

In communities with the Walking School Bus program, where adult chaperones walk a group of children to school, families are “moving physically, they’re spending more quality time with their children, they’re out there in their communities saying hello to other parents and other family members as they all walk their kids to school,” said Price.

To determine the happiest and most miserable cities, 24/7 Wall St. used the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Gallup’s results are based on roughly 354,500 telephone interviews conducted nationwide between January 2015 and December 2016. Gallup only reports the results for metropolitan areas in which at least 300 interviews were completed. 24/7 Wall St. supplemented Gallup’s response-based data with several socioeconomic, health, and crime data. Income and poverty statistics came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey (ACS). Data on food stamp recipiency and educational attainment also came from the ACS. Violent crime rates came from the FBI’s 2015 Crime in the U.S. report. Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and are for December 2016, the most recent period for which metropolitan area estimates are available. Regional price parity came from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and are for 2014. All other data were aggregated from the county level using 2016 data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a joint program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

These are the 25 happiest (and most miserable) cities.

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