At first glance, the “Happiest Place in America” has bright skies, lush hills and diverse mountain scenery. Salty ocean air wafts in from the Pacific Ocean that is just 10 miles away and the streets of downtown buzz with customers at boutiques and restaurants. Stay a little longer and see college students, tourists and Central Coast locals roaming the streets happily on Thursday nights during the Farmer’s Market.
The city was named the “happiest place in America” by Dan Buettner in his 2010 book “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way,” which describes how to live a long and happy life. However, in Buettner’s 2017 list of happiest places published by National Geographic, San Luis Obispo dropped to No. 5.
The happiness of San Luis Obispo residents can be explained in part by science. According to the Gallup-Healthways State of American Well-being series, the happiness of a community is measured by a well-being index score. The report analyzes well-being through five elements: purpose, social, financial, community and physical.
In a 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey, San Luis Obispo came in second in the nation with 94.1 percent of individuals reporting they were satisfied with their community. San Luis Obispo was the first to outlaw smoking in restaurants and drive-throughs at fast food restaurants, resulting in a more health-conscious city.
With these facts, it is easy to see why San Luis Obispo may be considered the happiest place in America to some. San Luis Obispo is a smaller city with a tight-knit student body and an even tighter-knit community. To outsiders, this could seem like the ideal living situation — a city that has a family-like community and works hard to be environmentally friendly.
However, these statistics only paint part of the picture. The town may seem like all blue skies and sunny days, but for the people that call San Luis Obispo their home, the city’s personal well-being and happiness is more complicated. There are several elements of life in the city that contradict San Luis Obispo’s status as the “happiest place in America.”
The transitional cycle of student population that affects wages and housing costs, as well as the lack of diversity, are just a couple examples of why San Luis Obispo is not so happy.
Additionally, homelessness remains a large issue for San Luis Obispo. In the county, there are six homeless shelters, as well as numerous churches that offer “overflow housing” for when there is not enough room in the shelters.
One of the largest non-profit agencies in San Luis Obispo that focuses on maintaining community self-sufficiency and wellbeing is Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, also known as CAPSLO.
CAPSLO’s homeless services have been working since 1989 to meet the needs of the homeless. Marci Sperlo, the executive administrator at CAPSLO agrees that homelessness is prevalent within San Luis Obispo.
“I’ve lived here for 45 years and I’ve worked here for nine years and I don’t see a decrease in the population we serve,” Sperlo said.
According to Sperlo, the cost of housing is one of the biggest factors that affects happiness in San Luis Obispo. She said that especially with the cycle of new students coming in every year, landlords are able to charge whatever they want to their tenants, since the demand for housing is so high. In return, those who live full-time in San Luis Obispo are massively affected.
Amber Vogt, a Cal Poly alumnus and administrative assistant in Cal Poly’s mathematics department has been living in San Luis Obispo since she graduated in 2011.
“I decided to stay because I had built a community here and I felt more at home here than where I was from. The area is really beautiful and I love how comfortable it is to live here,” Vogt said.
However, Vogt also mentioned that living in San Luis Obispo is not easy for early graduates.
“At times, cost of living isn’t equivalent to salaries and the cost of living is always inflated every year because of college life,” Vogt said.
Lower socioeconomic status is linked with higher stress levels and a risk of mental instability. There is a direct relationship between the experience of poverty and the rate of emotional disturbance, according to the New Haven Study conducted in 1958 and the Midtown Manhattan Study conducted in 1961.
The influx and efflux of new students every year has a large effect on the town’s productivity and wellbeing as well. In San Luis Obispo, business is competitive — family-owned businesses and boutiques earn a portion of their income based on the seasons students are in town. This inconsistent business can affect the economic status of working families in the city. The atmosphere of the city is also heavily based on the students at Cal Poly.
Central Coast native Genie Kim is a San Luis Obispo resident and also has a 4-year-old son.
“We have college-age neighbors and we’ve definitely had to knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, we have a 4-year-old, gotta turn down the music by at least midnight,'” Kim said. “I don’t want to ruin their fun because I remember being a college student, but at the same time there has to be a balance between the students who come in and how they treat San Luis Obispo with respect.”
Sperlo said students who are disrespectful toward the community can cause resentment in San Luis Obispo natives. However, Sperlo, who works with the homeless, also said some students take their time here as an opportunity to make a positive impact in the area.
“You do see students that are coming in that are less respectful of the people who live here; they party and hang around. But then we have a group of students who are here to be a part of the community,” Sperlo said. “I think they keep the community young but in also doing that, it can be intimidating when you walk around.”
Lack of diversity
San Luis Obispo’s lack of diversity also stands out as a factor drawing away from the area’s “happiness.” A 2015 American Community Survey found that 84.8 percent of San Luis Obispo residents are white. A study by social scientists at The University of Manchester revealed that a city with ethnic diversity is healthier because it leads to higher social cohesion and tolerance.
According to the Cal Poly University Diversity and Inclusion website, 59 percent of Cal Poly students were white in 2014, and in 2017, the numbers had little to no change.
Kim, who is of Asian descent, said she struggled growing up on the Central Coast as a minority. Kim said living in the area gave her a different viewpoint than other minorities raised in more culturally diverse cities.
“There was adversity and there were definitely different cultural norms that I had to learn and grow up with,” Kim said.
The lack of diversity has a large effect on minorities living in San Luis Obispo or who attend Cal Poly. Ruby Cross, animal science freshman and Asian-American student, said she has been having a difficult time adjusting to the new changes in her life.
“As a freshman, being away from your family for such a long time is already difficult. But it’s especially difficult when I look around and all I see are white people,” Cross said.
Cross said she thinks San Luis Obispo is beautiful and walking around the streets of downtown with friends is fun, but the lack of diversity makes her feel unwelcome. Cross said that though there are some efforts to foster cultural diversity, such as ethnic food options around town and Cal Poly’s Multicultural Center, it is not enough to make her and other freshmen feel welcome.
“The truth is the lifestyle here is great … if you’re looking at it aesthetically. The lifestyle is happy when you’ve got biking trails and beaches, but it’s still a day in and day out struggle with those who live here,” Sperlo said.