Why are Californians so happy?

Eight of the top 10 happiest US cities are in California, according to a new analysis of the 150 biggest cities in the country.

Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register/AP/File
Bicyclists cruise around the Great Park in Irvine, Calif., as a balloon floats in the background. Irvine has been named No. 3 in the WalletHub's 2017 'Happiest Places to Live.'

When it comes to happiness, balance is key, a new WalletHub analysis suggests.

California cities took 8 of the top 10 places in the personal finance website's 2017 "Happiest Places to Live" ranking, which rated 150 of the United States’ largest cities on the happiness of their residents. Fremont, Calif., took the top spot, closely followed by San Jose and Irvine. Two cities outside California snuck into the top 10: Sioux Falls, S.D. (#5) and the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. (#10).

But what explains California’s dominance? According to WalletHub, it's not any single factor. Though California enjoys impressively low levels of depression and accounts for 4 of the 5 least obese cities in the country, there are plenty of other metrics on which its cities are less distinguished. The secret appears to lie not in doing any one thing the best, but in not doing anything particularly badly.

“The point of having a society is to provide individual happiness,” Thomas Hirschl, professor of sociology and director of the Population and Development Program at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., told WalletHub. “The American dream is ultimately about everyone reaching their potential, and being happy about that.”

WalletHub researchers, including Professor Hirschl, compared 150 cities on three dimensions: emotional and physical well-being, income and employment, and community and environment. Within each category, they scored the cities on different metrics, using data from the US Census Bureau, Gallup, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among others. A weighted average of these scores produced the overall rankings.

Emotional and physical well-being included factors like adequate sleep, sports participation, and suicide rates. The category of income and employment looked at the poverty rate, work hours, and job security in a given city, among other factors. The community and environment dimension investigated levels of volunteerism, ideal weather, and daily leisure time.

Weather is likely one dimension on which all the California cities scored well – and something that “matters a lot” in terms of happiness, according to Mariah Evans, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada-Reno. In a 2014 WalletHub analysis, California cities took the top 14 spots for mild weather.

Outside the Golden State, a number of other cities stand out. Also on the West Coast, Seattle, and Portland, Ore., both rank in the top 3 for sports participation. Madison, Wisc., ranked first nationwide for levels of volunteerism, which seem to be unusually high across the Midwest. And big cities, including Washington, D.C. and Boston, have surprisingly low levels of suicide. 

On the other end of the scale, Detroit came in last place overall, with Cleveland, Ohio; Augusta, Ga.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Toledo, Ohio, performing little better.

How can residents of these cities feel happier?

In large part, it’s personal, sociologists suggest. Metrics like job satisfaction require individuals to make changes, from seeking autonomy to finding intrinsically interesting work, Professor Evans suggested.

Attitude matters, too, explained S. Katherine Nelson-Coffey, assistant professor of psychology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.

“Placing too much importance on happiness for its own sake can have negative consequences.... A more effective approach might be to pursue goals to be grateful, kind, and optimistic – and increased happiness will be an appreciated by-product,” she told WalletHub.

Read the complete rankings and methodology here.

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