It’s hard to know whether to be pleased each time the place I live, Charlottesville, Va., is named the happiest city in the United States. I grew up largely in Northern Virginia (suburbs of Washington, D.C.) and Charlottesville is a long ways away in Central Virginia. I remember hearing that Fairfax County schools, which I attended at the time, were ranked best in the country. Wow, I thought, other people’s schools must be truly awful!
So, I haven’t discovered that I’m happier; I’ve just been informed that everyone else is less happy. Not being much of a schadenfreudist, I can’t really find that anything but depressing. I knew that the United States fell behind a lot of nations in international attempts to measure happiness, but the idea that the rest of the United States falls behind my bit of it seems pretty gloomy.
I wasn’t interviewed for the latest survey, don’t know who was, and have no idea how meaningful it is. Of course I find the analysis interesting that says people in other cities are wealthier but less happy, and concludes that people are willing to be paid to be less happy. Again, I’m sorry not to be pleased, but doesn’t that suggest we’re a nation of morons? (Well, except for we enlightened few who’ve moved to Charlottesville.)
Of course, I don’t know most people in Charlottesville or have any idea how happy they are or why. Charlottesville, like most places, suffers from income inequality, poverty, pollution, too many cars, ugly sprawl, racial segregation, ignorance, consumerism, and lack of imagination. It’s no paradise, and my experience of it is not the same as anyone else’s. But let me offer a few ideas on how it manages to win these happiness rankings.
Charlottesville is significantly smaller than the other top-ranked cities. That it is a city is a legal matter; many people would call it a small town. It’s even smaller when the University of Virginia is on break. Charlottesville is close enough that people can go to the Washington, D.C., area when and if they need to or want to, by car or train or bus. But the traffic jams and crowds are there, not here. And, importantly, we know it. We know that we have many things better than they have it up north: we can get anywhere in 10 minutes or less; we can walk or bicycle; we can expect to bump into people we know; random people say hello; and there are no lines to wait in when we get where we’re going. And, significantly, when we get organized our local government often listens to us — in stark contrast to many people’s experience in larger places.
Charlottesville is heavily populated by people who chose to be here, as I did. People must be happier when they are somewhere they’ve chosen to be. I suspect that many, like I, appreciate the balance between a small town and a city. Charlottesville is culturally and intellectually rich for its size. It has a pedestrian downtown square — or, rather, street — so there is a there there. It has hills and farms and vineyards, a river, mountains, parks. It’s an athletic town, and exercise makes happiness. And, importantly perhaps, at least some of us are aware that rural areas not far from Charlottesville can sometimes be politically and culturally akin to stepping back decades or centuries in time, and not in a good way. One hopes we manage to be appreciative without being blindly arrogant.
Charlottesville has a university and two big hospitals and lots of other businesses, but I could never find a decent job here back in the days of real-world jobs. Only after I’d figured out how to work online could I move back to Charlottesville. I could do my job from anywhere and choose to do it from here, in part to be near family, in part to be somewhere that speaks my mother tongue, but in large part because I like the place.
And yet I’m haunted by some of the darker reasons that it’s possible to be so happy in Cville. Like most places in the United States, a good chunk of Charlottesville’s economy comes from the military and its contractors and subcontractors. Only because the military does what it does very far away and out of sight, and only because we tell ourselves lies to justify those evil deeds, can we enjoy our cafes and bike lanes and farmers markets. There are U.S. weapons companies in Charlottesville and U.S. weapons leveling houses in Gaza — not such a happy thought.
Like most places in the United States, Charlottesville unsustainably pollutes the earth’s air and water. That we’re in the piedmont, unlike those low-lying folks in Norfolk who are going to have to get very used to wetness, gives us a false sense of security. Weather extremes have begun reaching us here too, and there’s more to come.
Like most places in the United States, Charlottesville locks too many of its most troubled, and untroubled, people up behind bars and out-of-sight. Like most places, Charlottesville consumes products from around the world created in severely inhumane conditions.
I’m not sure I could spend my time writing about violence and injustice if I weren’t living in a place that suggests that’s not all that’s possible, but we all must work on making our happy places possible without hidden dependencies on violence and injustice.