Top 10 Happiest, Healthiest Cities in America

Discover the country's best hometowns and what we can learn from them.

ByABC News
August 30, 2013, 10:50 AM
Honolulu is one of 25 healthiest, happiest cities in America.
Honolulu is one of 25 healthiest, happiest cities in America.
Getty Images

Sept. 2, 2013— -- intro: People who live on the Greek island of Ikaria are three times more likely to reach age 90 than the rest of us--they work hard, eat well, nap, have plenty of sex, and "just forget to die," as one resident told a researcher. They're living proof that where you call home can predict how healthy and happy you'll be.

There are pockets of good health and contentment on our shores, too. We know: We painstakingly evaluated 100 of the nation's largest cities on 48 measures of health, happiness, and well-being to find the healthiest, happiest cities in America.

We explored the glorious: from access to green space and concert halls to number of farmers' markets (not to mention the inclination to eat five fruits and veggies a day). We looked at the grim: disease incidence, depression measures, unemployment rates, even FBI crime statistics.

After some high-level number-crunching, we came up with 25 hometowns you may want to call your own. But don't bother packing. We also identified what put those ZIP codes on the list, and our tips will help you be healthy and happy wherever you live.

Check out these 25 Best Weight-Loss Tips Of All Time for painless ideas that really work.

quicklist: 1category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: San Jose, Calif.: Organic paradiseurl:text: Why It Won: Tops in eating organic produce.

Happiness hub: Sunday morning Japantown farmers' market for exotic ethnic choices.

Given San Jose's blissful Mediterranean climate, it's no surprise that this Silicon Valley hot spot came up at the top of our list. And organic food plays a big part.

"It's not just that there are so many farmers' markets," says Marjorie Freedman, PhD, an associate professor of nutrition at San Jose State University. "It's that organic foods are available in many places, including mainstream restaurants and supermarkets. Plus, many people garden here, and since our growing season is so long, we're eating local tomatoes and zucchini for much of the year."

The city also boasts 18 community gardens on roughly 22 acres of land. More than half of the gardeners who tend them are immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe; the produce they raise lends a sophisticated global flavor to an already upscale food culture.

San Jose is also committed to making healthy food accessible to everyone, right where they live. The city council recently passed an ordinance that will allow vendors to sell fresh fruits and vegetables near schools, libraries, community centers, and houses of worship.


Clean up your plate.

There's growing evidence that exposure to pesticides can increase your odds of developing cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and other health problems. To find an organic market near you, visit For more on the benefits of organics, see our story on p. 106.

Want to go organic but not sure where to start? Download our Organic Fruits and Veggies Shopping Guide to learn which items you should always buy organic.

quicklist: 2category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: Salt Lake City, Utah: Our cancer-survival capitalurl:text: Why it won: Low cancer rates, along with the best cancer-survival rates among our 100 cities.

Happiness hub: The Japanese-style healing garden at Huntsman Cancer institute.

Cancer must hate Salt Lake. Thanks to the influence of the Mormons, people in this city are both clean living and much younger than in other places in the United States. (Large families lower the median age to 30.9 years versus the national average of 37.) That may be one reason Salt Lake City has one of the lowest rates of cancer per 100,000 people in the country. And for those who do get sick, the capital of Utah ranks No. 1 in cancer survival.

That makes perfect sense to Anna Beck, MD, medical director of supportive oncology and survivorship at Huntsman Cancer Institute.

"The most obvious reason is that the predominant religion doesn't endorse drinking or smoking," she says, "so that cuts down on cancer incidence. And when people do get sick, it often means they were healthier in the first place, so their chances of recovery are also better."

In addition, outdoorsy residents tend to keep their weight in healthy ranges, which also lowers cancer risk.

The area's strong family and social supports are also key. Dr. Beck, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, knows that firsthand: "I'm luck. I had a thousand patients as role models, and they pulled me through."


Watch your BMI.

With fewer people smoking, Dr. Beck says, a greater proportion of cancers are caused by obesity and being overweight. One report predicts that if Americans could reduce their BMIs by 5 percent, we could actually avoid 530,000 cases of cancer by 2030.

You can avoid cancer just by living a healthy lifestyle. Check out our 20 simple habits to lower your risk.

quicklist: 3category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.: The hardiest heartsurl:text: Why it won: Top scores for heart health.

Happiness hub: chain of Lakes, a downtown park that provides more than 2 miles of idyllic canoeing.

It's not the rustic Nordic diet that catapulted the Twin Cities to heart-healthy superstardom. Credit city planners, local doctors, and area hospitals--and it's been decades in the making.

"It's part of the fabric of our work here," says Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, a cardiologist at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. "People have spent decades boosting heart health by making the area more bikeable, for example, and offering cholesterol and blood pressure screenings to everyone."

It also helps that people here tend to understand that food is medicine for the heart. Of our top cities, it has the highest per capita number of farmers' markets and among the highest access to fresh produce.


Stand up for your heart.

Staying active is one of the best ways to lower risk of heart disease, but if you're sitting most of the day, regular exercise may not be as protective, according to a new study from Harvard University. Dr. Baechler tells her patients to take a 5-minute "movement break" every hour.

Find out how to protect your most important organ with our Complete Guide To Preventing Heart Disease.

quicklist: 4category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: Anaheim, Calif.: Focused on fitnessurl:text: Why it won: Top score in access to fitness facilities; residents maintain healthy weights.

Happiness hub: Yorba Regional Park--locals are more apt to visit there than Anaheim's Disneyland, the self-described Happiest Place on Earth.

To most of the world, Anaheim is a tourist magnet, home not just to Disneyland but also to a massive convention center and two professional sports venues. And that's just fine with those who call the "real" Anaheim home, lapping up its many health-and-happiness perks, including some of the highest fitness scores in our survey.

Take Karolynne Johnson, 55, the chief nurse executive at Kaiser Permanente's Anaheim Medical Center, who has been living and working in the city for the past decade.

"My fitness center is less than a half mile from my house," she says, "and through our fitness program at work, I do Zumba twice a week. On weekends, my husband and I go for a 45-minute walk together."

She says the city's sunny climate lends itself to spending as much time outdoors as possible, as does clever planning, such as Kaiser Permanente's extensive grounds: "There are beautiful fountains and gardens, and just walking from one building to another at work is enough to make me happy."


Find a gym you can't avoid.

The American College of Sports Medicine says picking a fitness facility that's smack-dab in the middle of your life, like at the halfway point of your commute home, makes it more likely you'll use it.

quicklist: 5category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: San Diego, Calif.: Workout landurl:text: Why it won: Has the most active residents, with the highest percentage of people who work out regularly.

Happiness hub: Take your pick from beautiful beaches along 70 miles of coastline or the many mountain, desert, or canyon hiking trails.

San Diego makes our list not just because people who live here are so much more active than much of the country (they are) but also because they know how to make fitness fun.

Michelle Ocampo, 36, for example, is president of a club called the San Diego Surf Ladies. Yes, they surf.

"But I also do yoga and run," says Ocampo, a project manager at a publishing company. "I like indoor soccer and flag football. And one of the things I love most about the surf club is that many of the members are into other sports, too, so we often go snowboarding or play tennis."


Schedule workouts--in ink.

People who exercise regularly are 85% more likely to be happy than those who don't, says a recent Canadian study. For mental health benefits, aim for 2 to 3 hours a week.

Get inspired by these 6 women who transformed their bodies and lives with Zumba.

quicklist: 6category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: Fargo, N.D.: Spiritual pioneersurl:text: Why it won: very high scores in regular church attendance.

Happiness hub: Northern Plains Botanic Garden, designed by horticulturists to inspire mental reflection, rejuvenation, and artistic expression.

Sure, the winters are long, snowy, and cold. But Fargo's fans say the city's strong sense of community, which shows up in high scores for regularly attending religious services, makes up for it. It's also a big clue to the town's warmth, says Stephanie Tollefson, 35, a pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, which welcomes some 5,000 worshippers weekly.

"People say a generous heart is a happy heart, and I see that here. The more you connect with other people, the more joy you get back," she says. "And the more joy you have, the more you want to give back." In Fargo, she says, "people genuinely seem to want to belong to something that's bigger than just themselves."


Flex your faith.

Research shows that participating in any formal religion or worship increases happiness measures, including well-being, a sense of belonging, and a sense of meaning. It also reduces anxiety and depression.

quicklist: 7category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: San Francisco, Calif.: Culture cureurl:text: Why it won: Almost endless cultural offerings, perhaps one reason it has high physical and mental health scores, too.

Happiness hub: Golden Gate Park's treasures, including bison and a tea garden.

When it comes to big-city charm, San Francisco has all the usual urban offerings. But when it comes to nourishing the soul, the city's vibrant arts, entertainment, and recreational offerings set it apart. While it may seem obvious that those options make people happier, they also make them healthier: Research suggests that attending cultural events may lower blood pressure and help ward off anxiety and depression.

Those who love it here say the city's constantly changing cultural scene, including arts, entertainment, architecture, and food, feeds their spirit.

"People here seem so very settled," says Kimberly Hayes, 36, executive director of the African American Art & Culture Complex, where she oversees theater, music, dance, and gallery events. A recent transplant from New York City, she loves exploring the city's neighborhoods when she runs.

"In the evenings, I've been going to hear lots of music, including the symphony," she says. It's winning her heart: "There's so much to do here, and most people seem very content."


Up your culture consumption.

A study of more than 1,200 US adults found that the more times people had been to an art exhibit, dance performance, music recital, play, or movie in the past year, the healthier they said they felt, no matter what their age.

Looking for a mood-booster? Discover the Daily Habit That Triples Your Happiness.

quicklist: 8category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: Madison, Wis.: Safe, sound, and well fedurl:text: Why it won: Highest scores in low crime rates and affordable fresh produce.

Happiness hub: The University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum, which includes prairies, savannas, and 20 miles of trails.

Laid out on an isthmus surrounded by two sparkling lakes, Madison is known for its natural beauty. But it didn't win for its good looks. Madison's low crime rates and easy-to-find, budget-friendly healthy foods make it our No. 1 pick for city life.

Neighborhoods are key, and more than 120 distinct neighborhood associations work together to protect each other.

"Both the city and the police force here are very proactive," says Patti Seger, a nonprofit administrator who came to Madison for college in 1979 and never left. "Safety of all kinds is something people here take very seriously."

Madison is both a college town and state capital, which has made civic involvement part of its DNA.

"This isn't a city of sheep," Seger says. "The fact that people here are so vigilant about what's happening in state and local politics also makes them more vigilant about crime."

That safety means Madisonians move freely outdoors, riding the city's plentiful bike paths (plowed all winter), cross-country skiing under the lights at the city's largest trail, or paddling kayaks.

Madison is also home to the country's largest producer-only farmers' market. (If you didn't grow it or produce it yourself in Wisconsin, you can't sell it.)


Heart your hood.

Community involvement doesn't just make you safe, it makes you healthy.

Volunteering just 100 hours per year--less than 2 hours a week--has been shown to boost self-esteem, reduce risks of heart disease and depression, and help you live longer.

quicklist: 9category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: Sioux Falls, S.D.: All-around healthiesturl:text: Why it won: Highest levels of self-reported health.

Happiness hub: The 19-mile bike trail, starting downtown in beautiful Falls Park, which spreads over 123 acres.

When it comes to finding the pure essence of happiness, Sioux Falls must be on to something. While it didn't score particularly well in some of our key measures related to fitness and nutrition, its plain old "I feel great" esprit comes through loud and clear.

Of the 100 cities we tracked, Sioux Falls is No. 1 in terms of people ranking their own health as "good or better." (It also got high marks for easy commutes, low crime and unemployment, and access to health insurance.)

"It's very free-spirited here, laid-back, and very family oriented," says Chantel Olson, 36, who runs an art business with her mother, Pennie Ogden, 60. "It's got a small-town feel, and yet it's big enough to make sure there's a good selection of things to do, from shopping downtown to eating at new restaurants."


Give yourself a health appraisal.

Research has found that we're pretty good at assessing our health. In one study, people who rated their health as fair or poor had a twofold increase in risk of premature death, compared with those who ranked theirs as good or excellent.

quicklist: 9category: Happiest, Healthiest Cities in Americatitle: Honolulu, Hawaii: The ultimate happy placeurl:text: Why it won: Off-the-charts mental health scores.

Happiness hub: Any beach, anytime.

Few states are as racially diverse as Hawaii, and the melting-pot mentality may be a key reason the people of Honolulu are so happy here.

"There really is no majority group," says Bill Haning, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii. "That leads to a sense of belonging and of being respected that other cities may not enjoy."

Of course, it's healthy, too, with low BMIs and high cancer-survival rates. "Plus, we've had near-universal health care here since the 1970s, so most people get really good care," Dr. Haning says.

The other reason residents here are so happy? It's pretty close to heaven on earth, with rainbows, waterfalls, and balmy island breezes year-round.

"I literally pinch myself on my drive to work every day," says Nancy Sidun, PsyD, president-elect of the Hawaii Psychological Association. Her fellow Honoluluans appear to feel the same. "People really cherish that beauty. Whether you walk on the beach at 5 am or 8 pm, there is always someone swimming. Five months out of the year, you can see whales spouting."


Get more "vitamin G" (as in green).

Being active outdoors increases your sense of well-being and reduces stress. Benefits kick in within 5 minutes.

Meet The Rest of Our 15 Happy and Healthy Hometowns!