The happiest cities and states in the United States

By
Updated on April 15, 2024
Written by
G. John Cole
Graeme has been Senior Writer for our parent company (NeoMam Studios) since 2013. His main role at HouseFresh is writing in-depth articles to accompany the original studies and data visualizations produced in partnership with the NeoMam team.

Instagram can tell you what’s new, what’s cool, and what’s for dinner. But can you use it to find happiness? The data analysts at HouseFresh reckon so, and we’ve processed thousands of Instagram selfies to find the happiest places in the U.S. – and those places where intense smiles are more common than genuine joy.

Happiness may be hard to find, but it’s even harder to fake. A generation of internet users has grown up with everyone always looking happy on Instagram, and they’ve figured out how to tell the difference. No matter how much you rehearse or how many discarded snaps end up in your phone’s trash, people have learned to piece together the clues from your selfies and figure out how you really feel.

Thankfully, robots are selfie-literate, too. Artificial intelligence can identify every face in a crowd, but it can also identify every emotion in a selfie. So, we put technology to the test.

What we did

We used Microsoft’s face recognition API, Azure, to analyze a database of Instagram selfies from every state and the 100 biggest U.S. cities to see which are the happiest places to live.

This facial recognition tool places numerical estimates on emotions based on characteristics and expressions. To work out the happiest cities and states, we used the FaceAPI happiness score, averaging all the scores in each location. For the smiliest cities and states, we considered that a face has a smile if its smile score was greater than 0.75. The locations were ranked by the percentage of people smiling.

Key findings

  • Utah, is the happiest and smiliest state in the US, with a happiness score of 74.4 out of 100 and 70.7% of photos containing a cheery grin.
  • Location matters – 8 of the 10 most cheerful states lie west of the Mississippi River.
  • America’s happiest city is Concord, California, with a happiness score of 79.1 out of 100. With nearly three-quarters of residents (74.4%) grinning in their photos, it’s also the smiliest.

How happy is America, according to AI?

We compared both “happiness” and “smiliness” because not every smile indicates happiness, and not every happy person smiles. After all, plenty of perfectly happy men choose not to smile in selfies because they suffer from man selfie face (lips in, eyebrows up, earnest). And some of the world’s most successful people ration their smiles in favor of pouting like an actual sparrow (parting your lips slightly, like a baby bird waiting to be fed).

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And then, there are the Hide Your Pain Harolds (named after the famous stock photo actor/meme whose forced smile fails to mask profound existential discomfort). The average Harold pic would probably hit 100% for intensity but not fare so well on actual happiness. A city full of Hide Your Pain Harolds might not be very happy, but it would be incredibly smiley. Would you like to live in a place like that?

Utah is happiest U.S. state – and boasts the most intense smiles

First, we mapped the happiest and smiliest states. Utah is number one in both regards, suggesting that when someone in Utah smiles, they really mean it! Surprisingly, California has the least happiness and the fewest smiles – maybe those Hollywood celebs are saving their best smiles for the silver screen. But between Utah and California, several states show some disparity between their placing for happiness and their position in the smiliest charts.

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Michigan ranks 23rd for smiles (average 57.63% smile intensity) but is actually the 14th happiest state in the U.S., according to a full emotion analysis of the state’s selfies (average 64.92% happiness score). The difference might be explained by the nature of happiness in Michigan. A happiness less defined by ‘delight and joy’ and more by resilience, faith, and… proximity to water?

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Meanwhile, all is not well in Massachusetts – but they’re putting a brave face on it. Only four states have lower happiness ratings than the Bay State: Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Jersey, and California. But nine rank lower than Massachusetts for the intensity of their smiles. The famous ‘yellow smiley face’ icon-turned-emoji was (probably) invented in Massachusetts in 1963. The designer, Harvey Ross Ball, was paid just $45 for his work, and if he were alive today, his smile would probably be more “Hide Your Pain Harold” than “face with tears of joy.”

Concord, CA, is U.S. capital of the genuine smile

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On a citywide scale, Concord reverses the trend of its home state California, boasting both the highest average happiness rating and most intense smiles. The hometown of Tom Hanks is said to be a quiet and pleasant place to live: moderately wealthy, moderately liberal, and more affordable than similar cities nearby.

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The top 20 happiest cities in the U.S. closely match the top 20 smiliest – there’s little disparity between those that smile and those that appear genuinely happy. Exceptions are Denver and Pittsburgh, which make the top 20 for happiness without forcing the smiles necessary to rate among those with the most intense smiles.

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The two unique entries among the 20 smiliest cities are Worcester, MA, and Denton, TX. Massachusetts again? Yep – Worcester is the city where Harvey Ball invented the smiley face. Worcester has nicknamed itself Smile City and even issues Smile City Passports offering discounts and offers at local businesses. No smile required, although the odds are you’ll be smiling intensely anyway.

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Leonardo da Vinci vs. the Robots

Instagram’s most popular faces have learned the places that get the most Likes and headed there one after another to get a smiley selfie. It makes it harder to discern the happiest places to live or visit, which is why we’ve provided the results of our full AI analysis in the interactive table below.

From the Mona Lisa to Hide Your Pain Harold, a smile goes furthest when it hides more than it shows. In the case of the Mona Lisa, the painter Leonardo da Vinci understood more about the subtlety of human facial expression than perhaps the robots ever will. Perhaps it’s just as well he’s not around to comment on Instagram selfies from Worcester or anywhere else in Massachusetts today.

Methodology and sources

To calculate the happiest cities and states in the U.S., we used Microsoft Azure’s Face API. This facial recognition tool places numerical estimates on emotions based on characteristics and expressions.

We analyzed images from each state’s Instagram page, as well as from the top 100 U.S. cities by population.

To work out the happiest cities and states, we used the FaceAPI happiness score, averaging all the scores for the faces detected by FaceAPI in each location.

For the smiliest cities and states, we considered that a face has a smile if its smile score was greater than 0.75. The locations were ranked by the percentage of people smiling.

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About the author

G. John Cole

Graeme has been Senior Writer for our parent company (NeoMam Studios) since 2013. His main role at HouseFresh is writing in-depth articles to accompany the original studies and data visualizations produced in partnership with the NeoMam team.

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