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The Happiest States in America

By Maya Stanton
January 12, 2022
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

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.”

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

Walk This Way: Meet the Next Generation of Audio Tours

If you’re one of the thousands upon thousands of travelers and commuters who’ve walked across NYC’s Brooklyn Bridge and thought to yourself, “Wow, this bridge is amazing. I wish I knew more about it,” there’s an app for that. Thanks to Detour, you can traverse the span across the East River with a self-guided audio tour narrated by Ken Burns, the award-winning filmmaker who wrote and directed a groundbreaking documentary film about the iconic bridge. A great self-guided audio tour can add depth and authenticity to your vacation, and the San Francisco-based Detour offers an immersive experience, using your phone’s GPS to give directions and deliver location-based information with each step. And with 150 offerings at $5 apiece in cities from Savannah to Seoul, you’re bound to find a walk to suit your interests. Browse by theme or place, or choose the voice you’d like to hear in your headphones: In New York, Burns will take you over and around the Brooklyn Bridge (and remind you to look both ways before crossing the street), while Broadway legend Joel Grey spills the dirt on his time on the Great White Way. Actor Peter Coyote leads you through San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and shares his memories of the famous Summer of Love, and over in the Castro, activist Cleve White details the city’s fight for gay rights. You can also set your itinerary around an iconic location. Stop by Checkpoint Charlie and learn about life in divided Berlin from a Cold War-era spy, or visit Fenway Park in Boston for a fan’s-eye view of the stadium. If food is your thing, there are delicious options—in Charleston, retrace the steps of Nat Fuller, an enslaved chef who hosted a reconciliation feast at the end of the Civil War, check out Los Angeles’s Koreatown with the editor of Eater LA, or get boozy with a New Orleans absinthe tour. Because of the detailed, hyper-specific knowledge on display, travelers aren’t the only ones who will get something out of a Detour experience. “My friend was visiting Oakland, and we decided to do the Black Panthers history tour of the neighborhood where I live,” says reviewer Lizzy Go. “It was full of mind-blowing anecdotes from the ‘70s that totally transformed my perspective of the places I walk by every day. Now every time I pass the stoplight on Market and 54th, I have this mental image of Panthers in their black leather trench coats serving as crossing guards for the elementary-school kids.” At five bucks a pop, you can’t ask for much more.

Inspiration

Book a Great Hotel Deal Right Here at BudgetTravel.com

Where are you going this fall? At Budget Travel, we’re all about inspiring you to “see more for less” and to discover great new affordable destinations. Now, we’re upping our game: Our new “Book a Hotel” page allows you to book great hotel deals through our partners at Booking.com. I took our new “Book a Hotel” page or a spin, planning some fall travel for me and my family. Some highlights include: Select a Destination and Travel Dates. On the left of the page, type the name of the destination you’re thinking of visiting. The Booking.com database will almost certainly recognize even the most far-flung places (I tried to play “stump the database” with some islands in the South Pacific, and it recognized every place I could think of, including tiny Cooke City, MT, a cool small town with a population under 100). With leaf-peeping season coming soon, I searched for hotels in Bennington, Vermont, one of Budget Travel’s “51 Best Budget Destinations in America.” Get Inspired. Even if you’re not sure where you’re going next, our “Book a Hotel” page can help you make up your mind, with recommended destinations along the right-hand side of the booking tool. The more you use the tool, the better the page will get at making appropriate suggestions for you. In my case, it has already figured out that I’m interested in family-friendly weekend escapes in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Review Available Lodgings. Hit "Search" and a list of available lodgings appears within a second or two, and, using a menu at the top of the listings, you can order the lodgings by price (low to high is what most of us Budget Travelers prefer), or starting with "top picks," which are frequently booked and/or highly recommended properties (an especially good idea the farther your destination is from your cultural or geographical comfort zone). When I searched hotels in Bennington, Vermont, I was pleased to find rates in early October starting as low as $85. Get Picky. Using a menu to the lower left of the hotel listings, you can get a bit choosy, filtering using criteria such as price range, breakfast included, free Wi-Fi, and even kitchen facilities. For my leaf-peeping search, I filtered for breakfast included and free Wi-Fi (because my trip will be in October, I didn’t filter for “swimming pool,” but it’s nice to know I can do that for summer travel): I was psyched that, post-filtering, my $85 deal was still available. Read Customer Reviews (and the Fine Print). Your lodgings list will give preference to properties that have received good reviews, but you can dive into the world of customer reviews if you’re curious about details. As I started to read the (glowing) reviews, the fine print about check-in and check-out, and some additional helpful info about nearby landmarks, I realized that the $85/night hotel in Vermont was actually a property I’d already taken my family to a few years back - and we’d thoroughly enjoyed the place. That was an unexpected, and welcome, confirmation that our new booking tool was steering me in the right direction! Reserve It. Selecting a room and making a reservation takes just a minute or two, and you don’t have to share credit card information or set up an account, just your name and email address. I found the experience inspiring and refreshingly easy. Ready to explore some affordable fall travel ideas? You’ll find a “Book a Hotel” button on the upper-right corner of the BudgetTravel.com homepage. Or just CLICK HERE.