After seven hours of slogging through L.A. traffic, coasting through Ventura and Santa Barbara, and rolling through the golden hills of central California, I arrived in San Luis Obispo with a sore bum and ready to stretch my legs.
Why did I choose this city as my next stop? Because I’d recently learned it was dubbed the “happiest” in the nation by New York Times best-selling author (and National Geographic grantee) Dan Buettner.
I saw him give a talk just last week (at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival) about his study of the happiest places in the world. SLO was the only U.S. city to make the list. According to Buettner, people who live there are more likely to smile and experience joy, less likely to experience pain or depression, and have the highest overall emotional health of any city in the U.S.
Sounded like rainbows and butterflies, but I was skeptical.
I was especially skeptical that the place could live up to the title in the few hours I would have to explore it. But I dutifully set out to discover if it was all a sham — or, if it wasn’t, why everyone was so darn happy.
Checking in at the Apple Farm Inn, with its outpouring of country warmth and kitschy charm, was a good start. It’s hard to be unhappy when you get home-baked chocolate-chip cookies handed to you along with your room key.
Then it was time for a walk. The streets were clean and well lit. And I’m not sure if it was because I was looking for happiness, but everyone I stopped and talked to was downright
nice. Not just smiling-politely nice, but genuinely happy to chat and give tips on places to check out.
After a mandatory stop at “Bubblegum Alley” followed by a delicious vegan/gluten-free dinner and beer (Sprecher Brewery‘s Shakparo; made of sorghum and only 50 calories at 6% alcohol) and game of SKIP-BO at the European-style Kreuzberg Book Bar & Cafe, I set off to photograph the city’s famed Mission.
I heard someone call out “Happy Monday,” from behind me. I turned to see a young man waving across the street to his friend who was driving a limo. This was not a sarcastic or jaded “Happy Monday.” No sir. This man was wearing a smile wider than his face.
After taking a spin around the mission, I was drawn back to the babbling brook that cuts through the heart of downtown and the music I could hear coming from the other side of it. I followed the melody and found myself at the Frog & Peach Pub.
When I walked in, who else did I see but Mr. Happy Monday on stage crooning in a smooth jazz voice. My jaw dropped. This wasn’t your average cheesy karaoke going on, but talented musicians taking turns jamming on stage — singing, playing guitar, saxophone, or bongo drums, take your pick. Couples were swing dancing to the rhythm.
I was already sold on this place, and I hadn’t even seen any of the outdoor goodies SLO had to offer.
As Nick, the bartender at the boutique wine bar, Vintage 1255, put it, “There’s endless outdoor stuff to do here. You can have free fun for days, weeks, months, years! Plus, you walk ten feet and you’ll run into a festival, no matter what day of the week.”
He also mentioned another reason why he thinks everyone is so happy, “We love our whiskey — especially Jameson. Our Irish pub, McCarthy’s, sells more Jameson per capita then any other bar in the world!,” he said. “Oh, and we don’t have to worry about locking up our cars or homes at night, either.”
I reckon that pretty much summed it up: outdoor adventure, strong community values, good eats, feeling safe and accepted.
I’ll be back, SLO, and someday soon. Perhaps to set up shop permanently.
Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer
Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.