April 14, 2014

Study: Happiest Cities

Read more about Can Money Buy Happiness

People often dream of escaping to the “big city” to pursue their dreams of being actors/rock stars/writers/corporate raiders. The idea is alluring, after all: power lunches at fancy restaurants, memberships at country clubs, hobnobbing at big galas - they’re all part of the fantasy.

But those who have gone before you in that journey to the big city may advise caution. Think of the traffic on that six-lane freeway, they’ll warn. The cost of living might be high, they’ll caution. The people will be unfriendly, or the jobs hard to get, they’ll say.

Sure, all that may be true. But, with some digging, we were able to find big cities that defy the stereotype and are filled with a higher proportion of happy workers. Here’s what we found when we looked at metropolitan statistical areas with at least a million people.

Study Methodology

From our perspective, five things make for happy workers:

  • The freedom to get another job if the current one sucks
  • A short commute
  • A decent wage
  • A lack of crappy office equipment
  • A non-nitwit boss

First, we looked at unemployment rates for metropolitan areas from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We figured that a low unemployment rate means it’s relatively easy to find another job.

Few things are worse than sitting in traffic for two hours every day, which is why we looked at the most recent U.S. Census data for daily commute time and gave it twice the weight in our scoring. As suspected, people in New York have it the worst with an average 34.9 minutes to work each way.

Once you get to work, you want to be happy, a feeling that comes pretty easy if you’re paid a decent wage. So we looked at the most recent U.S. Census data for per capita annual income and benefits.

We all have stories about hateful copiers and hellish computers that drove our productivity levels down the drain. The more employers keep these clunky things around, the more people they need to repair them. So we factored in the Bureau of Labor Statistics “Computer, Automated Teller, and Office Machine Repairers” occupation category, the more repairers per 10,000 residents, the higher the presence of poorly functioning office equipment. We gave this measure – our “Frustration Index” – half the weight, because a lame boss, bad pay, or a lousy commute usually outweighs constant paper jams or pleas for toner. From this we learned that Cleveland is one of the most frustrating places in America when it comes to office equipment.

Last, but not least, on the list of things that make work bearable is a nice boss. That’s hard to measure, but nothing raises the “nitwit” red flag like a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This federal agency keeps track of all of the charges involving sexual harassment and retaliation, as well as racial, national origin, religious, age, and disability discrimination. Ironically, the home of the EEOC (Washington, D.C.) gets the top dishonor.

We crunched the numbers and came up with a solid list of big cities with the happiest workers.

10 Happiest Cities in the US

10. Boston, MA

Boston, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts

  • Unemployment rate: 5.9%
  • Average commute: 29.2 minutes
  • Average wages: $37,800
  • Frustration index: 4.7
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.06

History, strong sports teams and a bustling waterfront converge to make Boston one of the world’s greatest cities. With a better than average unemployment rate and the lowest number of EEOC claims per capita on the list, it’s easy to see why it’s also an attractive place to work. Beware the commute, though - it’s a high 29.2 minutes each way (and that’s just the average).

9. San Jose, CA

San Jose, California
San Jose, California

  • Unemployment rate: 5.8%
  • Average commute: 25 minutes
  • Average wages: $39,806
  • Frustration index: 8.22
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.19

San Jose has two things really going for it: high wages and good bosses. That makes sense, given that so many Silicon Valley companies like having bragging rights about their work environments. However, San Jose has some of the most frustrating office equipment in the United States. Maybe all those tech geniuses will get around to upgrading their photocopiers.

Did you know?
Cisco Systems is the largest corporate employer in San Jose (13,600 employees there). IBM and eBay are the next largest at 4,700 and 4,200 employees, respectively.

8. Oklahoma City, OK

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

  • Unemployment rate: 4.8%
  • Average commute: 21.8 minutes
  • Average wages: $25,782
  • Frustration index: 3.91
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.36

At #8, Oklahoma City is OK. This city has the most well-mannered office equipment on the list, as evidenced by a low Frustration Index, but a high number of EEOC claims per capita suggests that the managers could be better. Having said that, low commute times and a low unemployment rate make it easier than most cities to get away from jerks.

7. Kansas City, MO

  • Unemployment rate: 5.4%
  • Average commute: 22.7 minutes
  • Average wages: $28,853
  • Frustration index: 5.21
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.33

Coming in at #7 is Kansas City. This city has across-the-board satisfactory scores - nothing too high and nothing too low. At 5.4% unemployment, workers there have a lot of options, too. It’s an all-around solid choice for work happiness.

6. Milwaukee, WI

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

  • Unemployment rate: 6.2%
  • Average commute: 22.8 minutes
  • Average wages: $28,593
  • Frustration index: 5.4
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.17

Like Kansas City, Milwaukee is a case in moderation. There’s just not a lot to worry about if you work there compared to most other cities. The unemployment rate is relatively good, the commute isn’t terrible, the wages are about the same as Kansas City’s, and the bosses behave. Looks like the shredders shred and the faxes fax a little better there, too.

5. Salt Lake City, UT

Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah

  • Unemployment rate: 3.5%
  • Average commute: 22.8 minutes
  • Average wages: $25,549
  • Frustration index: 5.43
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.10

Utah consistently gets praise for its outdoorsy quality of life, but there’s a lot to say about the indoor quality of life there, too. For one thing, it seems like everybody has a job in Salt Lake City - it’s got one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. The average wages are the lowest on our list, though, so you’ll need to believe that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Did you know?
In 2012, a 45-mile commuter rail line from Salt Lake City to Provo opened, and Utah’s ridership on commuter rail lines increased by 103%.

4. Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota

  • Unemployment rate: 4.3%
  • Average commute: 24.8 minutes
  • Average wages: $33,262
  • Frustration index: 5.31
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.19

Coming in at #4 is Minneapolis. With just a 4.3% unemployment rate, you’ll have more options than most folks in other cities if you’re still looking for the right job fit. The commute can be a bear, but the average wages run north of $33,000, which is pretty good for this part of the country. With people-friendly photocopiers and bosses, this place seems to be a good place for finding a non-soul-sucking job.

3. Hartford, CT

Hartford, Connecticut
Hartford, Connecticut

  • Unemployment rate: 6.8%
  • Average commute: 23 minutes
  • Average wages: $34,490
  • Frustration index: 4.29
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.08

Hartford comes in at #3 largely because the salaries and benefits are so high there - if you can find a job. The unemployment rate is the highest on the list, but we give the city credit for a more manageable commute and low-frustration offices. The managers there also seem to be low-frustration: the EEOC claim rate per capita is only 0.08.

Did You Know?
Insurance companies are three of the five largest employers in Hartford (the state and the local hospital are the other two).

2. Buffalo, NY

Buffalo, New York
Buffalo, New York

  • Unemployment rate: 6.5%
  • Average commute: 20.9 minutes
  • Average wages: $26,946
  • Frustration index: 4.40
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.18

Two of the greatest things about Buffalo are the chicken wings and the commute, which is only 20.9 minutes! That leaves plenty of wing-consumption time, though you’ll have to be sure to do it off the clock so you don’t get fired (with a 6.5% unemployment rate, it’s relatively hard to find another job there).

1. Rochester, NY

Rochester, New York
Rochester, New York

  • Unemployment rate: 6.1%
  • Average commute: 20.9 minutes
  • Average wages: $27,310
  • Frustration index: 6.54
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.18

Rochester, N.Y., takes the top when it comes to happy workers. Why? Well, workers there have nice short commutes - which counts for a lot in our book - and the unemployment rate is better than many places in the United States. Good wages and good bosses are plusses. And then there are the hots - you haven’t lived until you’ve had one.

Did you know?
Hots are a regional type of hotdog made most often with a natural casing and more flavor than a typical hotdog. The most common ones are red or white.


Working in an office is hard, but hopefully this list - which we narrowed from a pool of 51 major metropolitan areas - will be a reminder that sometimes the grass is greener elsewhere (or, in this case, the cement is grayer). The cities on this list might be good options if you’re looking for more work satisfaction but still want a life in “the big city.”

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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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