Top 5 Happiest Cities in the United States

These centers of serenity earn the highest marks in the nation—and they just might surprise you.

Photograph by Ronan Donovan
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The Third Flatiron is a popular hike in Boulder, Colorado.
Photograph by Ronan Donovan

You might not be able to buy happiness, but it turns out that you can measure it. National Geographic author Dan Buettner recently teamed up with Gallup to identify the happiest cities in the world, using metrics that ranged from healthy eating and financial security to vacation time and dental checkups. (Learn more here and in Buettner’s new book, The Blue Zones of Happiness.) We’ve pulled out the five highest scoring American cities to see just what these happy places are all about.

1. Boulder, Colorado

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A woman rock climbs in Eldorado Canyon.

As the number one happiest city in the U.S., it’s safe to say that Boulder has found its balance. This laid-back city at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains scores on multiple levels.

“As stunning as the setting is, Boulder’s appeal is more than just skin-deep,” writes Buettner in the November issue of National Geographic. “Besides being a college town, an adventure destination, and a haven for elite athletes, it produces the highest level of well-being for its residents.” Add that to its small-town charm and pleasant climate—and that undeniably stunning setting—and it’s easy to understand why Boulder takes the title.

2. Santa Cruz-Watsonville, California

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The boardwalk lights up the night in Santa Cruz, California.

The first of two California spots in the top five, the Santa Cruz-Watsonville area earns high marks in just about every regard. Situated along the coast in the Monterey Bay area, Santa Cruz and neighboring Watsonville are beach towns with an earthy interior. A moderate climate means good growing, and Santa Cruz-Watsonville is at the delicious, organic heart of California’s sustainable agriculture movement. (Most of the country’s strawberries are grown here.) Eats of a different sort (think funnel cake) can be had on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a 110-year-old seaside park that features a roller coaster, carousel, and other old-school delights.

3. Charlottesville, Virginia

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An aerial view of the University of Virginia gives one a sense of Charlottesville's quaint charm.

The storied home of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville has much to offer on all fronts. There’s the charming town with buzzed-about restaurants and bars, quaint shops, and the youthful energy of UVA students. There’s the history, with Jefferson’s Monticello and the homes of James Madison and James Monroe nearby. (Both Monticello and the university are UNESCO World Heritage sites.) And there’s the great outdoors: Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains call to hikers and bikers, and the vineyards and wineries that stretch over the rolling foothills call to a different sort of outdoor enthusiast.

4. Fort Collins, Colorado

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Fort Collins, Colorado was one of the cities that inspired the design for Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A.

A little over an hour north of Boulder is a city so happy it served as inspiration for the Happiest Place on Earth: The original Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland was modeled after the historic storefronts in Fort Collins’s Old Town. That Western heritage mixes with more modern influences from Colorado State University to create a vibrant city culture with an artsy edge. It’s also home to an unrivaled beer scene. But we’ve saved the best for last—the outdoors. Tucked into the foothills of the Rockies, with mountains in one direction and vast prairie in another, Fort Collins offers hiking, skiing, climbing, biking, and just about anything else that makes you happy.

5. San Luis Obispo, California

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A cyclist stops to enjoy the beautiful landscape in San Luis Obispo, California.

When Spanish priest Junípero Serra was looking in 1772 for a location to establish his fifth mission in California, he came upon this area—and the rest, as they say, is history. Since then, San Luis Obispo has lived up to its promise as a peaceful place to live. Located halfway between the bustling centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo (SLO) has a different pace. The SLO life, as it’s called, makes the most of local beauty (there are rolling hills, sand dunes, and incredible beaches a short drive away) and bounty (farm-to-table living is the norm, and vineyards dot those rolling hills). Who could ask for anything more?

Nancy Gupton is a freelance writer, editor, and lover of books, music, and, of course, food. You can follow her on Twitter.

Journey to Happiness in Boulder, Colorado Join National Geographic Photographer Ronan Donovan on a journey of the senses through Boulder, Colorado to explore the experiences that this particular town has to offer, and why its residents seem so happy.