Ask some of the happiest people in Boulder, Colorado, why the city is so full of joy and their answers might surprise you. For one thing, despite the idyllic postcards, the city isn’t picture perfect. Boulder residents acknowledge its challenges, from a lack of diversity to high housing prices. But each of them has found the path to personal contentment, and it seems their closest friends and neighbors have, too.
“It’s a good place to get happy,” says Ralph Noistering, a property owner and manager. “There are optimistic people to be around.”
Experts agree. National Geographic, Gallup and author Dan Buettner recently named Boulder the happiest city in America, citing its natural beauty, adventurous spirit and friendly people. Here’s what the locals have to say on why Boulder is bursting with bliss:
Free to be you and me—together
A sense of belonging is the single most important factor to contentment, according to Isabella Arendt, analyst at Denmark’s The Happiness Research Institute.
“What makes us happy is our friends and family and loved ones,” Isabella says. “It doesn’t matter what you gather around, as long as you gather.”
The social networking site Meetup has hundreds of Boulder-area groups, for everything from knitting to stand-up comedy. Boulder’s Craigslist is also full of options for connecting with people.
And nothing is too out there. In part because of its hippie roots, Boulder has a reputation for attracting the offbeat. Chances are, whatever you’re into, someone has been into something even more bizarre.
“You don’t have to feel uncomfortable here,” says Alexander Halpern, an attorney and president of the city’s Buddhist credit union. “We like weird.”
Perhaps because of the city’s large constituency of Buddhists—including Buddhist university Naropa—Boulder has become a haven of healing. Therapists, yoga teachers and reiki practitioners are plentiful; concepts like self-care are well trodden in casual conversation.
There are a lot of people in Boulder working to exorcise their demons, said Kim Thomas, a local therapist at the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute. While that might negatively affect their present mood—“It’s hard and it’s painful work,” she said—the end result is a more peaceful existence.
Boulderites are as good at caring for their bodies as they are their minds. The high altitude and challenging terrain draw athletes of all stripes, and physical activity is practiced as both a daily ritual and a leisure activity. Three hundred days of sunshine a year doesn’t hurt either.
“It’s so easy to go climbing or trail running,” says Laura Hockenbury, a sales associate at Boulder REI who gave a TED talk about the benefits of being kind to retail workers. Her customers and co-workers frequently ask her how she can be so happy. “Five minutes and you’re in the mountains.”
What begs mention in the same breath as Boulder’s natural landscapes are the efforts to preserve access to them. Trails for biking and hiking are plentiful; there are green spaces around nearly every corner. They exist in no small part because of the citizens’ strong will to fund projects for the public good.
Though not everybody enjoys Boulder’s $70,000 median income, anyone can enjoy a stroll by Boulder Creek or an exhibit at the Dairy Arts Center, which taxpayers have helped fund for many years. People are willing to put in their time, too: Residents of Boulder are twice as likely to volunteer than the average American, according to the Boulder County Trends report.
“If you have a culture of generosity—whether it’s through the state or through private philanthropists—it has a positive effect on everybody’s happiness,” Isabella says.
“Generosity is something that makes us even happier.”
Five ways you can bring a bit of Boulder into your life
Be polite. Boulderites love to chat up their cashiers, and traffic is notably mellow. Take time to say “hi” or let a fellow motorist cut in.
Exercise. “Move a little every day,” says The Happiness Research Institute’s Isabella Arendt. Bonus points for replacing your car commute with walking or biking, which is proven to boost joy. Strolling to lunch, coffee or for a business meeting works, too.
Establish a routine. Alex Halpern, a Tibetan Buddhist, shares a common mantra: The product of discipline is joy. Local property manager Ralph Noistering applies this to his social life as well. He has standing weekly dates with his best friend and his daughter, making those relationships a priority.
Give back. Donating time or money creates double happiness, Isabella says: Once for the person giving, and once for the people on the receiving end.
Do what you love. Even if it’s only one thing, find a way. Kim Thomas never misses a season of adaptive skiing, something she looks forward to all year.