by James A. Bacon
After learning that Virginia cities report some of the highest levels of personal satisfaction in the country (see “Happy“), I have been thinking a lot about what creates happy communities. In the hope of gaining a better understanding, I recently finished reading Dan Buettner’s 2010 book, “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way,” that plumbed the social, economic and political wellsprings of happiness around the world.
The premise was intriguing: Buettner visited four “blue zones,” locations where research indicated inhabitants were world leaders in happiness. Visiting these zones — Denmark; Singapore; Monterey, Mexico; and San Luis Obispo, California — he interviewed politicians, academics, civic leaders and everyday people about why they thought their country/city measured off the charts.
The book is an easy and thought-provoking read. Buettner asks intriguing questions. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are all across the board. While there are some universal constants — people are happier when they aren’t starving, dying from pestilence and in continual fear of their physical safety; people value family and friendships; people with a sense of purpose are happier than those without – different cultures define happiness in different ways. The things that make Danes happy often are very different from the things that make Mexicans happy. Transplant a Mexican family from Monterey to Copenhagen and the result will not be joy and contentment.
While the United States doesn’t set the standard for worldwide happiness, its inhabitants are happier than most. And of all the places in the country, it turns out that the residents of San Luis Obispo are, on average, the happiest in the United States. The picture that Buettner paints of San Luis Obispo, a city of 45,000 amid a county of 270,000, is an attractive one. Set in central California, the region has a great climate. There are lots of bike trails. The town is highly walkable. Local ordinances ban gaudy commercial signage. People are healthy and physically active. As home to California Polytechnic, the town has a lively cultural scene. People are tolerant of cultural minorities. Much wine is consumed. In sum, San Luis Obispo is the Charlottesville of California. Not coincidentally, Charlottesville was ranked happiest among all of America’s small metros in a 2010 Center for Disease Control survey cited in a July National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Unhappy Cities.” (I do not know if the CDC used the same methodology for ascertaining happiness as the researchers cited by Buettner.)
There may be more to San Luis Obispo’s secret sauce than meets the eye, however. Outside the university, there are limited economic opportunities, Buettner writes. And the quality of life is so desirable that people drive up the price of the limited supply of housing to levels that are unaffordable to many.
In other words, San Luis Obispo has used strict zoning and growth controls to create a delightful environment… for those who can afford it. Judging by happiness surveys, the people who live there are extremely satisfied with the results. But think about what that means. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of less affluent Californians who would like to share in that happiness but have been effectively priced out of the market. Who are those Californians? For the most part they are poor and minorities. San Luis Obispo is 85% white. Hispanics, some of whom are classified as white, constitute only 14.7% of the population. The number of Asians and native Indians is small, and the number of African-Americans is insignificant.
So, while San Luis Obispo celebrates diversity, it does not practice it. People — liberals and conservatives alike – like living around other people like them. The shared values stemming from such cultural homogeneity builds trust, and trust is a critical ingredient for happiness. The wider the radius of trust and cooperation in a community, the happier the people living there.
San Luis Obispo is hardly the only community to engage in exclusionary zoning. The practice is widespread around the country. But zoning out poor people, who tend to be less happy, is not in accord with America’s ideas of social justice. There is a rising tide of thought that nations should measure themselves not just by the size of their economies but by their Gross National Happiness. That sounds like a wonderful idea — until you ask whose happiness and how it is achieved.