A new study has named Thomas Jefferson's home town the feelgood capital of the US, but residents say that just means liberal values and a sense of community
To the residents of Charlottesville, it is a fitting coincidence that Thomas Jefferson, principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence that installed "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as three inalienable rights, lived only seven miles away.
Last week, this central Virginian town was named America's happiest city – or Joy Town, USA, as America's media quickly had it – by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). It's quite an accolade. But an informal poll of residents didn't find too many who rejected the finding. "I don't know about the happiest but it's certainly all right," says Jackson Greg, on Main Street late on Friday evening.
While researchers recommended Charlottesville as the happiest place, they named Richmond and Newport News, both in Virginia, as the happiest cities. Bottom of the feelgood listings came Scranton, Pennsylvania, New York City, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Here in Charlottesville, many said they would not be persuaded to move even if they were offered greater material security elsewhere. They point to a sense of community, broadly liberal values, a leading university (the University of Virginia), a temperate climate, comprehensive public health facilities, good food, sophisticated cultural resources among elements that make it ideal for happy living. If there's one place in the US that has more or less everything going for it, this is it.
"It's small, and it's surrounded by beautiful country, but it has all the things you'd want from a big city," says Donnie Glass, chef at a leading restaurant, Public Fish & Oyster.
For years, Charlottesville has been picking up the prizes. It's been named best town for food lovers by Wine Magazine; best college town in the country by Traveler's Today; the country's favourite mountain town by Travel & Leisure; and one of the happiest and healthiest places in the US by Business Insider. "It's a bastion of liberalism in the south," says building contractor Jim Raymond, who arrived as a student in the late 60s and built a life here.
Just two hours from Washington DC, C-ville (as the locals call it) offers quiet country retreats and horseback rides in nearby Shenandoah National Park, the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains, as well as a wealth of history that includes the homes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Its array of restaurants offer exceptional gastronomic variety.
The legacy of Jefferson, whose rather serious-looking statue stands at the end of West Main Street, near where he first established the University of Virginia, looms large over the town. "The inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness is a uniquely American concept," says C-ville research neuroscientist Chip Levy. "We're told happiness is an allowable goal and we're still trying to come to terms with it. What did Jefferson mean? I don't know. He may have been talking about the drive for a forward social progression, not happiness itself."
Levy says that in C-ville – sometimes described as the northernmost tip of the south – people don't become so caught up in the pursuit of happiness, at the restaurants, walking in the mountains, drinking fine wines, that they forget, in effect, to be happy. "We're happy to be happy, not just to pursue happiness."
According to John F Kennedy: "The natural beauty of the surrounding countryside and the manmade beauty of Charlottesvillle combine to weave a tapestry of American history few other towns or cities can boast."
The concentration of restaurants – by some estimates, C-ville boasts one of the highest densities for the population in the US – has made it a draw for visitors. The historic main street is a popular destination for food, wine and music. "Twenty years ago, it was mostly boarded up and dangerous at night. Now it's flourishing," says antiquarian book dealer Scott Fennessey. "We've got Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones come through."
As Kennedy found, and Jefferson before him, the region's rich farmland remains its bedrock. "To know the land, you have to know the food," says Meredith Lee, who helps run a company distributing local organic produce. "It's one of the best ways to support local farmers."
Virginia vineyards are known for white and some surprisingly good reds, says Fennessey. "It's a nice place to live, and there aren't many places like this in the US," he says.
Occasionally in C-ville, there's too much of a good thing. Ten years ago, Patricia Kluge, one of America's wealthiest women, expanded her celebrated winery so aggressively that it collapsed under the burden of loan repayments.
Given that the state of Virginia pulled off a happiness hat-trick with poll-topping Charlottesville, Richmond and Newport News, it should be no surprise that America's musical poster-child for happiness is a Virginian. Last week, Neptunes producer and singer Pharrell Williams's hit Happy became only the fourth single to be declared triple platinum (more than 1.5m in sales) in 20 years. The track topped the UK singles chart in December and has not left the top 20 this year. Gennaro Castaldo, of the British music body BPI, said the song has become a feelgood anthem for a generation. The singer has his own views on happiness: he believes feelings are becoming increasingly valued as other sensations become replicated by technology. Williams has said the success of the song – essentially a rewrite of the nursery rhyme If You're Happy And You Know It (Clap Your Hands) – shows people are searching for emotional connections, as an antidote to technology and virtual life.
"People want to feel. They're over-inundated with thinking," he said recently. "We're a different species to what we were 15 years ago. The only thing we have left that reminds us that we are humans that cannot be duplicated is feeling."
But the NBER study also found that "humans are quite understandably willing to sacrifice both happiness and life satisfaction if the price is right".
It would be fair to say that Charlottesville's secret is now out, and some worry that publicity about the quality of life in C-ville might also be its undoing. "Certain places become oases even as others become deserts," says Raymond. "Who would want to say a thing like that? Property developers? The next thing you know they'll try to turn it into the new Dubai."
For those fearing an influx of pleasure-seekers, however, there is consolation in the NBER study. Joshua Gottlieb, one of its authors, notes that people do care about more than happiness alone:
"The desires for happiness and life satisfaction do not uniquely drive human ambitions," the study says. "If we chose only that which maximised our happiness, then individuals would presumably move to happier places until the point where rising rents and congestion eliminated the joys of that locale."
Perhaps New Yorkers and others highly placed on the unhappiness index may be more wedded to their misery than they may know.
One thing is certain. No one is moving from Charlottesville any time soon. "It's psychologically draining to achieve even simple tasks in New York, and in LA you spend so much time in a car it sucks the life out of you," says C-ville resident Sivan Sherman. "The university attracts interesting people – people following their passion – and if it all seems a bit old-fashioned, it is. That's part of its charm."
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