2020 made us all think about what happiness really means to us–how to get it, how to keep it, what to do with it if you actually attain it.
But we also wondered: Are some parts of the country naturally happier than others?
Our team of Men’s Health researchers ran the data, from surveys about physical and mental health to stats about financial and general well-being, on the residents of 100 of the largest cities in the United States.
To dig deeper into our in-depth research methodology, well-being (based on predictive Twitter language) and mental health (rates of depression, suicides, and mental-health status) made up 20 percent each in the weighted rankings. These factors each carried 15 percent: community (local organization engagement), financial well-being (employment, income equality, home ownership, and access to adequate housing), environment (park and traffic proximity), and physical health (including activity levels, obesity, and sleep).
So, as you can see, we utilized a broad definition to determine what, exactly, constitutes a “happy” person. While money (or a house, or your health …) alone can’t gain you happiness–a combination of many things may.
And in full transparency, our sources are as follows: World Well-Being Project, the Trust for Public Land, EPA, American Fitness Index, and County Health Rankings.
So, in short, we did some serious work to find out who is happy–and where they live.
And we found that these are the happiest (and unhappiest) cities in America.
America’s Happiest Cities
1. Lincoln, NE
Star City didn’t top any one category–it scored high in nearly all of them. Which is true happiness: balance. Lincoln did rank very high in park access, due to its 6,000- plus acres of land devoted to 132 parks, 134 miles of trails, nine public pools, and five city golf courses. Spending at least 120 minutes weekly in nature is linked to improved well-being, a 2019 Scientific Reports study found.
2. Madison, WI
Madison ranked second the happiness charts because of its high score in the physical health category, particularly because of their access to exercise opportunities and low physical inactivity scores. A recent PLoS One study found that people who are more physically active are happier. The study also found that people are also happier while they’re physically active, showcasing why these fit Madison-ians must be smiling from ear to ear.
3. Raleigh, NC
Taking the number three slot is Raleigh, which scored very well in its mental health category. Perhaps that’s due to a state-wide Adult Mental Health Services commitment, which includes “assertive community treatment” (ACT). That’s defined as: “ACT Teams include psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, substance abuse specialists, vocational specialists, certified peer support specialists, and other specialists who help adult individuals with severe and persistent mental illness live in their homes instead of institutions,” according to their website.
4. Portland, ME
Cold winters result in … happy people? Portland scored well overall but was among the top ten in its community rating, which assessed how active residents were within their city. Creative Portland, a nonprofit group that encourages community involvement, lists more than 50 volunteer opportunities, ranging from the Bicycle Coalition of Maine to Pride! Portland to WMPG, Portland’s community radio station.
5. Billings, MT
Right smack-dab in the middle of our top ten is Billings, MT, which claims the number five spot primarily because of its high scores in well-being and community ties. These two categories actually go hand in hand; research has shown that it’s not only the close network of friends and family that bring us happiness, but also our “weak ties” or acquaintances in the community that may strengthen social and emotional well-being.
6. Sioux Falls, SD
Sioux Falls crushed it on financial health (like, it scored nearly 20 points higher than Lincoln), which means that unemployment, income inequality, and housing. problems are low. That said, environment, community, and physical-health scores– all high–trended toward the middle of the top ten: proof that money alone doesn’t buy happiness (but balance can).
7. Burlington, VT
Kind of awesome: 92 percent of their residents are within a 10-minute walk of one of the 35 parks covering 520 acres in the city. With six beaches, a skate park, and parks hosting concerts, community rides, farmers’ markets, and garden plots–all within walking distance for most residents–Burlingtonians have plenty of activity options to help keep their happiness high.
8. Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis lands in slot number eight primarily because of its overall well-being, ranked by University of Pennsylvania’s World Well-Being Project. The project ranks positive characteristics of people’s personalities, like conscientiousness, of which Minneapolis scored very high. Research has shown that people who are conscientious tend to be more satisfied with their lives and experience more positive emotions.
9. Anchorage, AK
Good mental health is the main reason Anchorage ranks high, with the third lowest prevalence of depression in our 100 cities. A 2019 Journal of Health Economics study found that cold temperatures reduce negative mental health outcomes (and hotter temperatures increase them). With temperatures dipping as low as -10degF in the winter months, Anchorage seems to epitomize “chilly but cheerful.”
10. Denver, CO
Denver had the lowest obesity score, with only 17 percent of its residents being obese. The city has 85 miles of paved biking trails and parks like Bear Creek Lake Park, located in nearby Lakewood. And 2020 research in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that obesity negatively relates to people’s perceptions of happiness in the United States, helping to cement Denver’s happiness ranking.
11. San Francisco, CA12. Durham, NC13. Cheyenne, WY14. Seattle, WA15. Washington, D.C.16. Colorado Springs, CO17. St. Paul, MN18. Charleston, SC19. Bridgeport, CT20. Bosie, ID
21. Virginia Beach, VA22. Aurora, CO23. San Jose, CA24. Nashville, TN25. Anaheim, CA26. Fargo, ND27. Austin, TX28. Plano, TX29. Omaha, NE30. Greensboro, NC31. Honolulu, HI32. Little Rock, AK33. Charlotte, NC34. Chesapeake, VA35. Salt Lake City, UT36. St. Louis, MO37. Oakland, CA38. San Diego, CA39. Jackson, MS40. Richmond, VA
41. Newark, NJ42. Wilmington, DE43. Oklahoma City, OK44. St. Petersburg, FL45. Tulsa, OK46. Winston-Salem, NC47. Jersey City, NJ48. Phoenix, AZ49. Chicago, IL50. Portland, OR51. Lubbock, TX52. Manchester, NH53. Orlando, FL54. Albuquerque, NM55. Lexington, KY56. Norfolk, VA57. Des Moines, IA58. Boston, MA59. Fort Wayne, IN60. Sacramento, CA
61. Reno, NV62. Laredo, TX63. Los Angeles, CA64. Atlanta, GA65. Memphis, TN66. Cincinnati, OH67. Wichita, KS68. Buffalo, NY69. Birmingham, AL70. Pittsburgh, PA71. Dallas, TX72. New York, NY73. New Orleans, LA74. Miami, FL75. San Antonio, TX76. Corpus Christi, TX77. Tucson, AZ78. Jacksonville, FL79. Kansas City, MO80. Cleveland, OH
81. Charleston, WV82. Indianapolis, IN83. Tampa, FL84. Baltimore, MD85. El Paso, TX86. Las Vegas, NV87. Columbus, OH88. Providence, RI89. Houston, TX90. Milwaukee, WI91. Louisville, KY92. Toledo, OH93. Stockton, CA94. Fort Worth, TX95. Fresno, CA96. Philadelphia, PA97. Riverside, CA98. Bakersfield, CA99. Baton Rouge, LA100. Detroit, MI
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Men’s Health.