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The Happiest States in America

By Maya Stanton
September 18, 2017
Dreamstime L 22803110
George Burba/Dreamstime
A new study examines the 50 states to discover where Americans are living their best lives.

What makes us happy? What is happiness, anyway? 

The most recent attempt to define and quantify the intangible comes courtesy of financial website WalletHub, which assembled a team of experts to rank the 50 U.S. states in terms of contentment, based on relevant research in three categories: emotional and physical well-being, work environment, and community and environment. Per WalletHub’s Richie Bernardo, “previous studies have found that good economic, emotional, physical, and social health are all key to a well-balanced and fulfilled life,” and this one aimed “to determine where Americans exhibit the best combination of these factors.” You don’t need to relocate to reap the benefits—that sense of satisfaction just might be contagious for visitors.

#1 MINNESOTA 

The Land of 10,000 Lakes ranked in the top five in all three of the survey’s happiness categories for a first-place finish. That fresh water must be cleansing—residents get plenty of sleep, love to volunteer, and report low divorce rates, and the North Star State is the fourth-safest in the country. Minneapolis and its art, culture, and food scenes may grab the headlines, but over the years, Minnesota has been a perennial favorite in our Coolest Small Towns contests, and it also hosts one of the best state fairs in the country.

#2 UTAH

The Beehive State took top honors in the survey’s work environment category and its community and environment category, bumping it up to second on the list (although it did poorly in the emotional and physical well-being category). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its natural splendor and access to premiere hiking and skiing, it has one of the best sports-participation rates—and the fewest hours worked. Take full advantage of the state’s outdoor amenities and plan an epic road trip to Utah's unparalleled national parks

#3 HAWAII

The closest place Americans have to paradise may not have ranked #1 overall, but it shouldn’t come as a shock that Aloha State residents scored highest in emotional and physical well-being, with the lowest rates of adult depression in the U.S. Let that hang-loose, shaka attitude rub off on you as you explore the islands: From volcanoes, beaches, and jungles to shaved-ice and poke stands, there’s something for everyone. And we offer the ultimate Hawaii insider's tips, so take a deep breath and say ahhhh.

#4 CALIFORNIA

Second only to Hawaii in terms of emotional and physical well-being, the Golden State earns its moniker with low rates of depression and high rates of sports participation—not to mention its multicultural cities, pristine coastline, and gorgeous views. The road trip wasn’t invented with the Pacific Coast Highway in mind, but it may as well have been, with classic routes tailor-made for those with a restless streak. Check out the Ventura County Coast, spend a long weekend in Monterey, or fall in love with San Francisco all over again.

#5 NEBRASKA 

Those Cornhuskers know a thing or two about living a well-balanced life, getting in their 40 winks while juggling volunteer opportunities and steady work, with the state boasting one of the lowest long-term unemployment rates in the country. Thanks to its museums, eateries, sports fandom, and reasonable prices, the city of Lincoln earned a spot on our 2017 list of Best Budget Destinations in America, but there’s more to Nebraska than its capital. Drive through the heartland and visit the Sandhills region, or tour around the state and take in its pioneer history; either way, you’ll be stretching your dollar as far as it’ll go.

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Inspiration

My Totally Unplugged Vacation: No Smartphone. No Talking. No Booze.

Having grown up in a half-Thai family, I was familiar with the basic concepts of Buddhism and had been practicing meditation since I was small, yet it wasn’t until I was in my 30s and living in Boston that I first heard of the Vipassana method. A friend mentioned she was attending a retreat. It got me curious.  The free courses offered by Vipassana centers around the world include lodging, food, and instruction in the Vipassana meditation method, popularized by S.N. Goenka, a Burmese teacher. Though secular in practice, it’s based on the original technique taught by Gautama Buddha. All the centers are in rural areas and their courses generally fill up months in advance. Wait lists are long.  Rather than focusing on repeated mantras or breathing, like many other meditation techniques, Vipassana trains the mind to see things “as they really are” and to break free from the cycle of stress, anger, and dissatisfaction in which so many of us find ourselves trapped. It does this through progressively attuned observance of sensations throughout the body, while simultaneously conditioning the mind not to react to those sensations. Training takes place over the course of ten days, all of which are spent in “Noble Silence.” There is absolutely no speaking, or even eye contact, with other participants. On top of that, cellphones and any other devices (even pens and pencils are considered “devices” in the Vipassana universe) are locked away before the course begins. Surprisingly, I didn’t miss my cellphone at all, but I admit that the journalist in me couldn’t handle ten days of not writing, so after a few days I dug some empty Kleenex boxes out of a recycling bin and took notes on the backs of them using a stray eyeliner pencil I found in my purse. The other rules include no intoxicants, no stealing, and “no killing.” A true practitioner of Buddhism is a strict vegetarian, after all.  I'd never done anything remotely approaching 100 hours of silent meditation, completely cut off from the outside world. As you can imagine, I found the prospect daunting. It’s made clear in the course description that Vipassana is not “a rest cure,” nor “a holiday,” but rather something more akin to a mental boot camp. But I was at a crossroads in my life, having recently lost my job and then, shortly after, ended a long-term relationship and moved out of the apartment we had shared. It’s never easy to drop out of the world for ten days, but finding myself unemployed, unattached, and essentially homeless, it seemed like as good a time as any to give it a try. When I arrived at the center, located in a remote part of Western Massachusetts, I was surprised to find not a rustic cabin resembling an abandoned kids’ summer camp, but a brand-new facility where I was assigned to a sparse, but comfortable room with a private bathroom. I relinquished my phone and chatted with the other students before we were plunged into Noble Silence. There were 80 of us, half women and half men, though we were separated at the check-in point. There were several young Thai women and older Indian women, your expected crunchy hippie types, a twitchy woman who appeared to be on the verge of some sort of mental breakdown, a few bubbly young girls from France, and a female surgeon who stopped meditating halfway through the course. She called her husband to complain the second the noble silence was broken. I was assigned a space in the group meditation hall and we settled in for the course introduction. I immediately noticed a potent patchouli odor coming from somewhere in front of me. It was irritating because we’d been specifically instructed not to bring “any perfumes or strongly scented toiletries.” Also, patchouli is revolting. In a brief video, Mr. Goenka welcomed us to the course and explained the schedule and its purpose. A rotund, elderly man, he told us the story of how he went from a wealthy but miserable businessman in Burma to a devotee of Vipassana meditation in a peculiar, slightly Transylvanian drawl. The next day we were awakened at 4am by the sound of a gong and then, as preparation before starting true Vipassana meditation, we focused on careful observation of our breath. By the end of the day, after ten hours of meditation, I was surprised to realize that I spend most of my time not living in the present, but thinking of the past or the future. It was also clear that trying to clear your mind of all thoughts is like trying to wrestle a greased pig into a coin purse. By the second evening, my senses were so heightened that I could tell that the patchouli smell was coming from the curly-haired girl one row up and one row to the right. Despite that sensory assault, I was feeling quite calm until videotaped Goenka returned with an announcement: “There is no dinner here.” I didn’t miss my phone or the Internet at all. Wearing baggy PJs all day was actually quite pleasant, and I had no problem sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours on end, but no dinner for ten days? A slight panic started to rise in my throat. Or maybe it was just the hunger setting in. By the third day, it became clear that men are truly the gassier of the sexes. (Or they just make less effort to hold it in). But far more distracting was the construction work going on just outside the meditation hall—perhaps an additional test of our resolve? On Day 4 I accidentally poured boiling water over my hand at tea time but somehow managed to maintain my silence. As I sat meditating afterwards, I realized that while I could still feel the burn, it no longer hurt—or rather, the pain didn’t bother me. This concrete demonstration of the power of the mind over the body and perception was a compelling epiphany. As the days passed and hours of meditation piled up, I came to recognize the sounds of coughing, hammering, belching, and farting as mere vibrations, rippling through the air and my body, and understood how pointless it was to let them bother me. But at night my stomach grumbled, and when I heard some of the other women sneaking out to their cars after lights-out, I imagined they were shoving contraband Luna bars into their mouths. On Day 6, empty spots around the room made it clear that during the night several people had “done a legger,” as the Irish say. Whether it was hunger, boredom, discomfort, or overwhelming urges to kill that had chased them off, I’ll never know. I was having occasional wistful thoughts of coffee and margaritas, but was determined to stick it out. As Day 7 dawned, I felt strong and serene. While my mind would still occasionally wander like a naughty monkey, I could do mental TSA scans of my body from front-to-back, top-to-bottom, any which way. At a certain point, I even felt, as hokey ask it might sound, the confines of my body dissolve and hum with the energy of each of my cells, in rhythm with the energy pulsing in the air all around. If you’d asked me a week before if I’d ever felt my body’s energy at one with that of the universe, I’d have given you some serious side-eye. As the end of the course drew near, I grew fearful of re-entering society after having made eye contact with only a robin in over a week, and with senses so heightened that I could detect the change in temperature in the air I inhaled—cooler as it went in one nostril, warmer as it went out. Would my head explode when I was surrounded by people, cars, traffic, the chaos of the city? On the last day, we were released from silence and informed that it was “Metta Day,” a day of “loving kindness,” which the two girls from France celebrated by having a screaming fight in their room. Though my middle name is “Metta” (no, really—it is), I freely admit that I’ve often had trouble maintaining feelings of affection towards all living beings. But in the week after the course, I cuddled a cat (an animal that I not only detest but to which I am severely allergic) and was completely unfazed by an accidental run-in with a toxic ex. But though this unearthly composure and beneficence would not last forever, I came away from the course with a heightened awareness and invaluable tools for the rest of my life—the ability, whenever I should wish to utilize it—to live each moment with truth and clarity, and the power to determine my own happiness.

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Indianapolis

Indianapolis doesn’t like to beat its own chest, but the city has a lot to boast about. There are the varied cultural institutions, culinary traditions as well as progressive restaurants, green spaces, and its early 20th century status as a manufacturing hub that rivaled Detroit. However, Indy has long been known for just a few things: car racing, NFL powerhouses the Colts, and native sons David Letterman and Kurt Vonnegut. These days it’s increasingly known for Karen E. Laine and Mina Starsiak Hawk, the local mother/daughter team that hosts “Good Bones” on HGTV. In the show, they go around Indy fixing up dilapidated, neglected houses. You might even say they are on a beautification crusade to rehab the city they know and love, neighborhood by neighborhood. We met up with them when they were in New York City to get the lowdown on where to eat, drink, play, and hangout in Indy.  HAPPY MEALS Karen and Mina, whose show evolved from the fixer-upper business they started in 2007 called Two Chicks and a Hammer, play their mother/daughter roles with natural ease on the show, disagreements included. When you meet them in person, they’ll tell you that there are a lot of things they don’t agree on off-camera, too. Bluebeard, however, is a recommendation they agree on wholeheartedly. It’s one of the older restaurants in Fletcher Place, an historic residential neighborhood with a bustling commercial core. Among the many memorable dishes at this farmhouse-chic, locally minded restaurant is an indulgent grilled cheese breakfast sandwich with a sunnyside-up egg and truffle honey, which Mina describes with the giddiness of someone talking about a recent tropical vacation. Its nearby sister restaurant is Milktooth, a bustling, airy breakfast and lunch eatery with a diner-style counter. Mina’s friend from high school’s father owns them both, and these kinds of connections are a dime a dozen in town. “Indy has a small-town feel, even though it’s a big city,” Mina says. “Everyone know everyone.” Kinda like what happens when Karen visits her favorite coffee shop, Calvin Fletcher’s, which is owned and run by a father and his son. “If you go there twice, they’ll know your order and your name.” Or consider Rook, a popular spot for traditional Filipino food. The chef here is Carlos Salazar, and Mina worked with him when he was had a less glamorous role in the kitchen and she was waiting tables. And as far as his menus today, “I don’t even have words,” she says as a look of bliss washing over her face. Any city worth its salt in food culture has locals that will hold one restaurant’s burger in higher esteem than all the rest. For Karen, that supreme burger is served at Ember, where longtime waitress Shelly knows what she wants before Karen even orders. That’s usually the cheese burger, served with lettuce that’s cold and crispy and fries that are always hot and crispy. Or wait—maybe it’s the burger at Kuma’s Corner, an outpost of a rock’n’roll Chicago restaurant known for its giant patties served on a big pretzel bun. “Their burgers are transcendent,” Karen declares. “You can get it with egg, cheese, onion, but the meat is so good that if you just got a burger with nothing on it, you would not be sad.” ONE SMALL NEIGHBORHOOD WITH A BIG PERSONALITY The Indy Cultural Trail, a sleek eight-mile bike path dotted with public art, runs throughout the city connecting downtown to the various neighborhoods, including Fletcher Place and Fountain Square, the walkable community that Karen calls home. Virginia Avenue cuts right through the middle of the neighborhood and when the trail opened, all the businesses along it got a boost. That means most of the spots that Karen called local are now better known. And that’s not a bad thing. She recommends Wildwood Market, a shop in an old gas station specializing in meats, cheese, pickles. Each day they make one sandwich, two soups, and a salad, take it or leave it. Mina recommends taking it. They sell out in an hour. Another option is Pure Eatery, known for its local and natural-minded menu. It was a basic sandwich shop when Karen moved in, and now it’s a full-on restaurant and bar where the breakfast taco menu starts at 10AM, earlier than most other restaurants are open. But the real allure here is the mac’n’cheese, which is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure in decadence. Bacon, cheese, spinach, and more cheese are among the swoon-worthy add-on options. Bars are easy to come by. You can get a flight of tequila to accompany the excellent Mexican food at La Margarita, but for something really distinctive, check out New Day Craft Meadery, a spacious, kid-friendly spot adorned with local art. They produce an intriguing variety of meads and cider and host regular events, like yoga and the cleverly named Mead & Knead, a night where you can get a massage while you sip. It’s a lively neighborhood in general, but it gets even livelier on First Fridays, the monthly event when pop-up shops arrive, bands play in the street, and businesses stay open later to accommodate the many people wandering. Indy’s music scene is represented here, with spots like HiFi, a performance venue and ad hoc gallery. There’s a bar, but no kitchen, so lots of people order from nearby food trucks. NATURE AWAITS Indy has one of the biggest city parks in the country. Clocking in at 39,000 acres, Eagle Creek Park is more than four-times the size of New York City’s Central Park. An incredible urban oasis, it features a reservoir where you can rent kayaks or canoes, a six-mile trail along the periphery, and a half-dozen playgrounds. It’s not uncommon to find locals packed into the sheltered picnic tables or scattered throughout the greenspace in nice weather. The smaller Garfield Park, which boarders Fletcher Square, features European-style sunken gardens as well as a pretty greenhouse decorated with fish, birds, and seasonal decorations. There’s live music, including a summer concert season, and since it’s less than ten minutes driving from downtown, there’s no reason not to stop by.

Inspiration

5 Reasons Why We Love Southwest's September Fare Sale

Are you inspired by our recent fall travel chat on Facebook and ready to pack up and go? Southwest’s current fare sale (good for travel through December if you book by Sept. 21) will enable that urge. Don’t expect to fly around the major holidays, but if you’re in the market for a weekend getaway, you may be in luck—cheap flights to some of our favorite destinations are up for grabs. Here, five especially great deals we love. Chicago to Austin, from $94 Like a booster shot for seasonal affective disorder, a serious dose of sunshine at the beginning of the season can help ward off the February blues, so head south and soak up some vitamin D before that Chicago winter really kicks in. Check out the Austin City Limits Music Festival at the beginning of October, or go on a five-hour meat binge with the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest on Nov. 5. If you’re not willing to plan your trip around a one-off day of carnivorous consumption, that’s OK—it’s always taco weather in this food-crazy town. Dallas to Boston, from $78 When the Texas heat has you dreaming of colorful leaves and crisp autumn air, consider New England. Boston makes a great jumping-off point for a fall-foliage tour, and the city is a destination in its own right. Catch a game at Fenway Park, channel your inner history nerd and play colonial-landmark bingo, have a bowl of clam chowder at Yankee Lobster, and mingle with the college crowd in Cambridge. We like dem apples very much, thank you. Indianapolis to NYC, from $89 For those who can’t get enough of that noel, New York in December is a must-do trip. Rockefeller Center’s tree-lighting ceremony kicks off the festivities on November 29, and the Fifth Avenue department-store window displays appear soon after, leaving holiday lovers with plenty of non-blackout dates to explore a city that feels just a wee bit softer under those twinkling lights. You won’t escape the cold, but you’ll definitely get into the spirit of the season. Los Angeles to Denver, from $93 Endless summer bumming you out? Swap sand for slopes with a stint in the Mile High City, a veritable paradise for outdoor-adventure enthusiasts. Denver boasts miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails, white-water rafting excursions, and, of course, ample opportunities to ski and snowboard in the nearby Rockies. There are even disc-golf courses for those who want to take it a little easier. If indoor activities are more your thing, may we suggest the Great American Beer Festival in early October? With 3,800 beers from 800 breweries, you’ll be sure to find something to wet your whistle. Washington, D.C., to Orlando, from $92 Orlando’s amusement parks hit peak capacity around the holidays, but if you absolutely have to plan a family vacation around the kids’ school schedules, at least you’ll get to Florida at a discount. When you book in December, do so knowing that the crowds will be nuts, and embrace the chaos. Our Disney survival tips are your secret weapon—they’ll help you keep your sanity on the ground, so don’t forget to bookmark and read before you go. All rates are starting prices, one-way, as quoted on southwest.com.

Inspiration

Hurricane Help From Airbnb and HomeAway

The immediate danger posed by Hurricane Harvey may have passed, but the regional crisis in Texas and Louisiana is far from over, and Hurricane Irma is approaching Florida and the Caribbean.  As the shelters in the Houston area empty out, many residents are returning home to discover that their onetime sanctuaries have been damaged beyond repair, and the devastation runs deep: Thousands of people in Texas and Louisiana have been displaced, with FEMA-funded hotel rooms in short supply and renters in a particularly precarious situation. (In the past week alone, hundreds in the Houston area have been served with eviction notices.) Help often comes from unexpected sources, though, and vacation-rental sites such as Airbnb are stepping into the breach. Hundreds of hosts from Corpus Christi to New Orleans are opening their doors to evacuees and relief workers—and they’re doing it for free. Under a disaster-response policy implemented in the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb is encouraging hosts in the affected and surrounding areas to list their homes at $0 until September 25, and in return, the company is waiving all booking fees. Nearly 1,000 properties have been offered to date, and demand is high, with many vacancies filled soon after they’re posted. At last count, some 500 urgent accommodations were available on the website’s dedicated page. “We are proud to see our Airbnb community coming together to help their neighbors in need,” says Kellie Bentz, Airbnb’s head of global disaster response and relief. The hurricane hit close to home for the Texas-based HomeAway, and in response, the site is giving its property owners and managers the option of renting to survivors for free or at a discount through the end of the month, waiving service and booking fees in the process. The company, which also runs VRBO and VacationRentals.com, has set up a temporary-housing page for those who want to make their homes available, and so far, more than 100 have opted in. For good samaritans who may not be able to pitch in physically or monetarily, offering up their space is tangible way to offer a helping hand. “I personally don’t have the financial funds to donate as much as I’d like to,” Austin resident and Airbnb host Edith Flores told The New York Times on Sunday. “This is one thing I can do.”

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