Sign up for the BETTER newsletter

You have been successfully added to our newsletter.

NBC News BETTER brings you wellness news and tips to make the most of your mind, your body and your life.

These are the happiest cities in America — and they may surprise you

Big cities may be cool, but these small cities are happier, this survey says.
by Nicole Spector /  / Updated 
Pearl Harbor
Pearl City, Hawaii was one top five happiest cities according to a report by Wallet Hub, but it's not all rosy. It ranked #57 in terms of income and employment. sphraner / Getty Images/iStockphoto
Get the Better newsletter.

Happiness is often thought of as a subjective human experience, but a new report by WalletHub suggests that where we live can foster and support it, and that cities in themselves can be happy places. 2018’s Happiest Cities in America, the second annual study on this topic from the personal finance site, ranked 182 cities, factoring in three main components: emotional and physical well-being, income and employment and community and environment. WalletHub weighed a number of factors within each category such as depression rate, sleep rate, work hours and divorce/separation rate.

"The methodology was developed in conjunction with academic experts, and based on their input our research team collected the data from well-known, mostly government sources," says WalletHub analyst, Jill Gonzalez. "The data was aggregated from sources such as U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gallup-Healthways, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Feeding America, Chmura Economics & Analytics, Administrative, etc."

What Do Cali and North Dakota Have In Common? Happy Cities.

The end results are surprising if only because they're so across the map — literally. WalletHub determined that the five happiest cities are Fremont, CA, Bismarck, ND, San Jose, CA, Pearl City, HI, and Plano, TX, respectively. To be clear, these destinations didn't necessarily come in at the top in each of the aforementioned criteria (in fact, Pearl City slouches at #57 in terms of income and employment), but when looking at their collective scores, they had other cities beat.

Mental health experts are fairly stumped as to what these places have in common to make them urbanity's frontrunners for contentment.

"At first glance, the findings in this study make no logical sense, rhyme or reason to me," says Dr. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child." “I can only guess that Fremont, CA scored #1 and then Bismarck, ND came in at #2 for reasons such as highest amounts of leisure time spent per day, low cost of living, or some random variable not even examined in the study."

Smaller Cities Foster A Sense of Connectedness

Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist, performance coach and author of "Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days" wonders if it's not the size of the cities playing a role, noting that major metropolitan hubs like NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago didn't rank as high.

"A smaller city can help you feel more of a communal sense as well as connectedness and purpose," Alpert tells NBC News BETTER. "In a big city, there can be a tendency to feel swallowed up and isolated. Take New York [# 80 on the list], for example, the stress factors are all elevated: cost of living, noise levels, pollution, commute time and lack of apartment quality (limited size). Throw into the mix of lack of green space and long cold winters and you've got yourself one very unhappy city.”

Haril Pandya, principal, director of asset strategy with the design firm CBT, agrees with Alpert’s point about access to verdant outdoor spaces, which is why he was intrigued to find that not all the top cities tout balmy weather year-round, noting “sunny skies makes everyone in a slightly different state of mind.” It’s currently in the 30s in Bismarck, ND — same in the 6th top city, Fargo, ND. These and other cities that get cold in winter, yet still have high happiness quotients, probably have a lot of other attributes that generate a sense of community, and it could come down in part to architectural design.

“From a design perspective, cities with office buildings that are becoming more permeable and open enable a happier subjective experience,” says Pandya. “They're welcoming in many ways, whether they have a food hall, a great retail aspect or a common area that provides a sense of transparency and connectedness.”

Sad Cities Can Improve With Architectural Efforts

The lowest ranking cities in the report were Little Rock, AR, Gulfport, MS, Huntington, WV, and Birmingham, AL. Detroit came in at the rock-bottom of the list, which makes sense considering the city’s struggling economy and the high crime rate. Despite the obvious dismal facts, it’s important for city planners and dwellers to seize this data as an opportunity for improvement.

“Can you take an automotive plant or steel factory that has been shut down and reposition them into funky housing or cool office spaces or a courtyard? Can developers take risks to recreate an economic focus for a city that has ‘lost its charm’ over the years?” asks Pandya says. “Detroit is a perfect example of where you could do that.”

It would be challenging, but it wouldn’t be impossible. Pandya adds that Boston, which came in at #63 on WalletHub’s list, is a good example of a city that’s looking to raise its happiness profile by transforming physical spaces.

“We have an underperforming urban plaza in Boston that for years has been empty,” says Pandya. “Our administration is now activating it. [We could have] an ice skating rink in winter, a place for concerts and a center to come together in all climates. We’re also looking to make office buildings that feel more residential, with more hospitality and have a spark or energy that brings people together out of the office. I see cities like Detroit as being ripe for the picking when it comes to these developer opportunities, but it will take a great architect.”

If you’re down in the dumps in a place like Little Rock, relocating to a “happy” city probably won’t cure your blues.

‘Wherever You Go, There You Are’: Happiness Starts With You

An important takeaway: even if you’re in an “unhappy” city, you have every chance at generating and nurturing contentment; likewise, if you’re down in the dumps in a place like Little Rock, relocating to a “happy” city probably won’t cure your blues.

"Innate human factors can't be overlooked, because after all, wherever you go, there you are. You could take the happiest people in the world and drop them in a miserable city, and they might find a way to be happy and conversely, you can take a depressed, unhappy person and transplant them to a happier city, and they still might not feel so good," says Alpert.

The ball is in your court, whether you have a courtyard or not. And you need to own your happiness if you want to keep growing it.

“Forget the city — whether you're in Bismarck or Honolulu — work on yourself and reframe any negative thinking,” adds Alpert. “Get involved with activities, and if you’re new to a city, look beyond your job for social [bonding]. A healthy diet, exercise and stress management are also integral, and just know that no one is doomed by where they live."

3 Ways to Boost Your Happiness Quotient

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Get the Better newsletter.
MORE FROM better