Updated June 11, 2014

Study: Happiest Cities in California

Read more about Can Money Buy Happiness

California is home to some of the coolest industries - and by extension, some of the coolest jobs - in the world. But it’s still hard to drag yourself out of bed every morning if the pay isn’t that good, the job itself isn’t that fun, and the office is boring. That reality goes double in California, where for many residents, the commute to work involves a clogged eight-lane freeway filled with angry drivers who have 45-plus minutes before getting to their destination.

Still, you can overcome the unhappy, burned-out worker status if you can find one of those cool jobs minus the crazy commute. How to pull it off? Pick one of the following 10 California cities, which we’ve deemed to have the happiest workers in the state.

Study Methodology

From our perspective, four things make for happy workers:

  • The freedom to get another job if the current one is horrible
  • A decent wage
  • Not having to get up when it’s still dark
  • A reasonable, non-stressful commute

First, we looked at employment data from the U.S. Census’ most recent American Community Survey for the incorporated areas of California. We figured that a low unemployment rate means it’s relatively easy to find another job. Turns out that bosses in Redondo Beach better be nice to their employees - the area has the lowest unemployment rate in the state (5.3%). Employers in Compton, where the unemployment rate is 20%, don’t have to think as much about employee retention.

Let’s not kid ourselves - most of us work for the money, so of course we had to include per capita annual household income. Folks in San Ramon are the winners here, with an average income of $122,357. People in Hemet City need a raise - they’re last at $30,141 per year.

If you’re not earning what you’d like to be earning, you should at least be able to wake up at a normal hour, right? Well, the folks in Oxnard probably think so - a whopping 18% of them leave for work between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., which means they’re getting up way before most West Coasters. The better sleepers are in Mountain View, where only 2.3% have to leave for work at that hour.

Speaking of leaving for work, few things are worse than sitting in traffic for two hours every day, which is why we also looked at the most recent U.S. Census data for daily commute time. Tracy City has it the worst with an average 42 minutes to work each way. If you live in Santa Barbara, however, you’re at work in just 15 minutes. The average was 26.8 minutes each way. By the way, we gave double the weight to departure time and commute - after all, rising at 4:30 a.m. so you can sit in traffic for an hour a day is hardly ever on the list of “dream job” characteristics.

With all of those metrics, we came up with this list of California cities with the happiest workers.

10 Happiest Cities in California

10. San Mateo

  • Unemployment: 8.8%
  • Median Household Income: $77,820
  • Early Risers: 4.9%
  • Commute Time: 24.5 minutes

Halfway between San Francisco and San Jose is San Mateo, which is home to about 100,000 people. It has one of the higher unemployment rates and commute times on the list, but folks who manage to find jobs seem to get good-paying ones that don’t require super-early report times.

Tip: With an average 24.5 minute commute, read this article for ways to save money on gas.

9. Lake Forest

  • Unemployment: 5.4%
  • Median Household Income: $82,689
  • Early Risers: 6.3%
  • Commute Time: 25.7 minutes

Lake Forest looks like a town full of go-getters; it has the highest commute time on the list, but it also has the lowest unemployment rate. Thankfully, not too many of them have to get up at the crack of dawn to do the getting.

Did you know?
One of Lake Forest’s official mottos is “Where Work and Life Come Together Naturally. ”

8. Redwood City

  • Unemployment: 5.6%
  • Median Household Income: $76,206
  • Early Risers: 6.9%
  • Commute Time: 22.1 minutes

Coming in at number 8 is Redwood City, home to Oracle and Electronic Arts. Although this metropolitan area has one of the lowest unemployment rates on the list, what knocked it down a few notches is the high number of people who have to leave the house by 6 a.m. to get to work.

Did you know?
Approximately 43% of Redwood City residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

7. Sunnyvale

  • Unemployment: 8.5%
  • Median Household Income: $101,611
  • Early Risers: 3.9%
  • Commute Time: 23.2 minutes

Lockheed, Yahoo, and Juniper Networks are big employers in Sunnyvale, located between Mountain View and Santa Clara in the northern part of the state. Commute times are Sunnyvale’s downfall, but what the city lacks in fast lanes it makes up for in cash - it has the third-highest household income on the list.

6. Milpitas

  • Unemployment: 9.7%
  • Median Household Income: $101,644
  • Early Risers: 3.1%
  • Commute Time: 21.7 minutes

Milpitas comes in a number 6, largely because it has one of the highest household incomes in the state and on this list. But it also has the highest unemployment rate on the list. With only 3.1% of residents being early risers, these folks get to hit the snooze button more than once every morning.

5. Irvine

  • Unemployment: 7.6%
  • Median Household Income: $96,278
  • Early Risers: 3.5%
  • Commute Time: 22.3 minutes

Irvine falls right in the middle of the list at number 5. Broadcom and Allergan (and most of its employees) call the city home, and chances are that those employers aren’t hearing too many complaints from employees. Except for the fact employees will have a hard time finding another gig, given Irvine’s high unemployment rate, the high household income and the lower likelihood that these folks have to schlep to the office at 5 a.m. are keeping them content.

Did you know?
Irvine was not incorporated until 1971.

4. Newport Beach

  • Unemployment: 7.5%
  • Median Household Income: $112,259
  • Early Risers: 4.6%
  • Commute Time: 22.1 minutes

A hop, skip, and jump west of Irvine is one of the swankiest towns in California: Newport Beach. It’s virtually identical to Irvine except for one thing - money. The household income in Newport Beach is the highest on this list.

Tip: Read this article to make sure you are getting the best credit card rewards for high spenders.

3. Santa Clara

  • Unemployment: 8%
  • Median Household Income: $92,390
  • Early Risers: 4.2%
  • Commute Time: 21 minutes

Back up north, in the Bay Area, is Santa Clara. Intel and Texas Instruments employ thousands of people here, and with this city’s proximity to San Jose and the rest of Silicon Valley, you can be sure that folks in Santa Clara have lots of job prospects.

2. Santa Barbara

  • Unemployment: 7.8%
  • Median Household Income: $64,766
  • Early Risers: 2.6%
  • Commute Time: 15 minutes

Two hours north of Los Angeles is beautiful Santa Barbara. Though the pay there is the lowest on the list, the commutes are incredibly short, and everyone seems to be getting enough sleep. Work-life balance - based on low number of early risers and shorter commute times - scores a lot of points for Santa Barbara, which just goes to show that not everything about work revolves around money.

1. Mountain View

  • Unemployment: 5.6%
  • Median Household Income: $91,422
  • Early Risers: 2.3%
  • Commute Time: 20.3 minutes

With good incomes, good jobs prospects, good working hours, and reasonable commutes, Mountain View takes first place for happiest workers. Google, which is headquartered in the area, may have a lot to do with this. The employer is famous for its culture and talent, but it’s not the only player. LinkedIn, Intuit, 23andMe, Mozilla, and plenty of other innovators are in the area too.


California is a beautiful state that also is home to one of every eight Americans. There are a lot of jobs to choose from, particularly if you’re open to the spillover effect of Silicon Valley’s famous ping-pong-table, bring-your-dog-to-work, unlimited-vacation office culture. Those whose skills are in demand can likely afford to live wherever they please. We acknowledge not every place on this list is affordable to everyone. It’s always fun to (California) dream, right?

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Follow @CreditDonkey or write to Tina O at tina@creditdonkey.com
Tina O is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped families make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions. (read more)

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