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In a nation as big as the United States, each state can feel like its own country, and each major city retains its own character and cultural history. When picking a new American city to live in — or even just to visit — the options can be overwhelming. Do you want the best weather? The most affordable housing? The most dazzling skyline or the most beautiful natural scenery?
But where would you go if you wanted to be happiest? In September 2021, 24/7 Wall Street conducted a survey, interviewing residents of U.S. metropolises on their overall level of satisfaction in life, considering factors such as housing, transportation, food access, weather, recreation, and financial stability. Here are the cities that ranked highest for overall happiness.
This Denver suburb has recently come into its own, regularly appearing on lists of the happiest U.S. cities over the last decade. Tucked into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with the spectacular views to prove it, Boulder seems to entice its residents to spend all their free time outdoors. Boulderites especially like their bicycles, and they have over 300 miles of bikeways to show for it. They also take their hiking seriously; a few trailheads even begin right in the city, so the mountains, rivers, and waterfalls are literally steps from Boulder’s downtown core. Known for its progressive bent, Boulder’s population is just over 100,000 people strong, but at only 10 miles from the metro Denver area, it has the benefits of quick access to the city while enjoying the close-knit vibe of a small town.
It’s no mystery why the Emerald City has seen a tremendous influx of new residents in the last decade. In addition to an abundance of high-paying tech jobs and pristine water-and-mountain views, Seattleites enjoy the mild (albeit rainy) winters of the Pacific Northwest and gorgeous flower-filled summers — ideal for biking, hiking, fishing, skiing, and mountaineering, among many other outdoor activities.
Seattle — which was grouped with the metropolitan area suburbs of Bellevue and Tacoma on the 24/7 Wall Street list — is sandwiched between the Cascade Mountains and the Puget Sound. Locally known as the Salish Sea, after a group of native Salish tribes, the Puget Sound is home to many idyllic and picturesque islands, as well as the nation’s largest ferry fleet to serve them. These divine natural surroundings give Seattleites easy access to beaches, mountains, and even a temperate rainforest. Both Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park are less than two hours away from downtown Seattle. The area also has a reputation for cutting-edge music festivals, a funky arts scene, top-notch dining, and fantastic coffee.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Above all else, Ann Arbor is a college town, home of the University of Michigan, and it has the artsy, freethinking vibe to match. Located less than an hour from sprawling Detroit and just west of Lake Erie, the city is set amid rolling hills and has a high walkability score — its charming Main Street is chock full of bookshops and pubs. Also known as Tree Town for its dense forestation, Ann Arbor is built on either side of the Huron River, providing locals with nearby fishing, kayaking, and other outdoor recreational activities. Along with the city’s several colleges, its residents love the diverse job market, low crime rate, and abundance of parks.
New York, New York
The Big Apple needs no introduction, of course, but there are more than a few reasons that locals are glad to call it home. New York has it all: cultural diversity, architecture, history, food, famous landmarks, and a singular energy that the city is known for across the globe. The job market here is surely competitive, but New Yorkers (and those in surrounding cities like Newark and Jersey City, grouped together in the survey) enjoy myriad opportunities to work in industries that aren’t available in other U.S. cities.
The arts scene is a particular point of pride for New Yorkers, from Broadway and world-renowned museums to street art and small galleries. New York is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character and feel, but the city’s unrivaled public transit options — including the world’s largest subway system and the only one running 24 hours a day — make it seamless to travel between them. Locals also love New York’s fascinating history and architecture, the dozens of city parks, and being able to find cuisine from pretty much anywhere in the world.
With sweeping ocean views in all directions, postcard-perfect beaches, tropical plants and wildlife, and marvelous weather year-round, it’s no wonder why Honolulu residents are generally happy folks. Located on the southeast tip of the island of Oahu, Hawaii’s state capital also offers plenty of fine dining and shopping, and the city is a melting pot of cultures, traditions, and ethnicities from around the globe. Residents can indulge year-round in surfing, sailing, hiking, diving, and snorkeling. Locals also love the relaxed no-suits-or-ties vibe and the tight sense of community on the island.
The Connecticut city of Bridgeport is usually prized for its short commute to New York City, but that alone doesn’t account for residents’ overall happiness. Grouped together with nearby Norwalk and Stamford on the 24/7 Wall Street list, residents in these these historic seaport communities live an upscale lifestyle, with dozens of private yacht clubs, golf courses, and tennis clubs, as well as many public beaches and parks. That includes the 35-acre Veteran's Memorial Park and Marina in Norwalk, which includes a boat launch site, a football field, baseball and basketball facilities, and hiking and jogging trails. Stamfordians are particularly proud of their pizza, which they consider to be among the best in the country. With all of these factors combined, the area makes for an attractive place to live for families with kids who want to get out of the big city — but still experience a place with a standalone culture all its own.
A vibrant coastal New England city on the banks of the Charles River, Boston is the college town to beat all others — more than 40 colleges, universities, and community colleges are located in the city and surrounding suburbs such as Cambridge and Newton (also included in the ranking). The collegiate list includes heavy hitters such as Harvard, MIT, and Boston College. Many of Boston’s students choose to stick around once school is done, and the populace skews younger as a result — with an eclectic hotbed of bars and venues to keep them entertained. Founded in 1630 by the English colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Boston is also one of the oldest cities in the nation, and its charming historic architecture and narrow streets reflect that. An excellent public transportation system and short proximity to other major Northeastern cities only add to Beantown’s overall allure.
In addition to being one of the safest cities in the nation, the District is also one of the cleanest, with fresh air, swept streets, and pristine parks. The job market of the area — which includes suburbs like Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia — is seemingly evergreen here, not only in the government and healthcare sectors, but also in the entertainment and tourism industries, since the city gets a lot of visitors. Because of this, there’s plenty of fun stuff for residents and tourists alike to do and see, including many historical landmarks, gardens, monuments, and museums — as well as live music, street festivals, and a vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene.
San Jose, California
Once a bedroom community south of San Francisco, San Jose has exploded in popularity since the tech boom. It is now the de facto capital of Silicon Valley, known for its proliferate tech jobs and matching affluent lifestyle. With over 6,000 tech companies in the area — including Apple, Google, Netflix, Abode, Cisco, eBay, and Paypal, to name a few — the city’s residents tend to be young professionals. These happy San Joseans can take advantage of the city’s public transit options, soak up the sunny Northern California weather, and hike through vast stretches of old-growth redwood forests to the south of the city. Nearby Sunnyvale and Santa Clara offer plenty of parks and green spaces, as well as the historic 250-year-old Mission Santa Clara de Asis. Palo Alto and its Ivy-League Stanford University are right next door, and the whole area lies at the southernmost point of beautiful San Francisco Bay.
San Francisco, California
Less than an hour from San Jose, San Francisco boasts the happiest people in the United States, according to the findings from 24/7 Wall Street (which grouped it with the nearby East Bay cities of Hayward and Oakland). One can easily see why: San Francisco is the jewel of the bay, with nature’s splendor to be found in all directions. Ornate, candy-colored Victorian row houses (aka “the Painted Ladies”) are found throughout the city; it’s home to one of the nation’s largest Chinatowns; parks such as the 1.5-square-mile Golden Gate Park are easily accessible; and water views of both the bay and the glittering Pacific beckon to the west, north, and east. Add to that a booming economy, a mélange of cultures, typically mild weather, many nearby opportunities for outdoor recreation, and a restaurant and nightlife scene to rival any other in the world, and you have a dynamic, romantic city that has stolen people’s hearts for decades.