San Luis Obispo had a heck of a run. We were on Oprah. We were on T-shirts. We were on almost everybody’s bucket list.
Like the Golden State Warriors, we were untouchable. We were the happiest city in the whole USA.
Until we weren’t.
Just like that, San Luis Obispo/Paso Robles/Arroyo Grande (yes, we are considered a region) has slipped from first to fifth place on the National Geographic list of the nation’s happiest cities. If this were the Olympics, we wouldn’t even be on the podium.
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Boulder, Colorado, is now at the top of the happiness heap.
Here’s the honest truth: Boulder is welcome to the top spot, because it’s not easy being held up as a paragon of happiness.
When you’re No. 1, you have a reputation to uphold. You are the nation’s role model, as this quote from National Geographic’s November cover story implies:
“If Americans want to feel more joy in their lives, pursue their purpose more rewardingly, and find greater satisfaction in achieving their goals, they could listen to the citizens of Boulder. ...”
So, Boulder, be prepared for your turn under the microscope. You will be been judged by a slew of travel bloggers, video producers and magazine writers who will seek out your most laid-back coffee shops, sip your best brews and tackle your toughest hiking trails.
You will emerge from the process with a laundry-list of alleged virtues that may look suspiciously like SLO’s (minus the reference to Bubblegum Alley):
▪ None of us smokes.
▪ We are more likely to experience joy and less likely to experience pain and depression compared to residents of other American cities.
▪ We have no noticeable graffiti — the only exception being “a colorful 3-D mosaic of chewed gum plastered in an alleyway, a community-sanctioned oddity dubbed Bubblegum Alley.”
▪ We are friendly to a fault. We smile hello at passersby. We graciously step aside when moms and dads take up the entire sidewalk with their floppy dogs and their giant jogging strollers. We refrain from flipping off drivers who cut us off in traffic.
▪ We are healthy! We marathon, we hike, we cycle, we yoga and if we don’t, we try to look like we do.
Yes, here in SLO we’ve been through it all, and we’ll be the first to admit that with all that smiling and exercising and dedication to living of our best lives, the crown of happiness grew heavy.
Pride in being special gave way to snark, as in: “Do we really live in the ‘happiest place’ in America? Ha!”
In conversation, “happiest” came encased in its own set of air quotes dripping with sarcasm.
In print, the honor was weaponized to attack those not living up to Happy Values, as in this letter to the editor complaining about a San Luis Obispo City Council decision to regulate offensive smells:
“What are you guys smoking before meetings?” it began. “And really? There are no other big issues facing the happiest city on Earth these days?”
As a matter of fact, there are plenty of other big issues facing SLO/Arroyo Grande/Paso Robles.
Housing costs are among the highest in the nation. Water supplies are limited. Student test scores aren’t great. Our biggest industry, Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, is due to close in under 10 years, which means fewer jobs and less tax revenue.
And we just learned the cost of living here is so high, typical workers in San Luis Obispo County have zero discretionary income left over after paying for housing and other basic expenses.
As you can see, even happy places have their problems. Even Boulder, which, according to National Geographic, “has curiously high levels of stress.”
But that’s OK, because according to one of the Boulder residents quoted in the article, it’s “productive stress.”
So yes, the happiest of cities have work to do. But we’ve still got a lot to be proud of, or we wouldn’t have made the list, right?
So thanks, National Geographic.
And good luck to you, Boulder. We wish you all the happiness in the world. And may all of your stress be productive.