We Went To The Happiest Town In The USA To Learn Its Secrets
On happiness and living unlimited.
Did you know that one of the happiest places in America is San Luis Obispo, California?
It's true! Readers Digest said so. Well, it said it was one of the four happiest places in the world, but San Luis Obispo being the only place on the list in the US, it easily claimed the title. And as any doctor's office waiting room or grandmother can confirm, the Digest is rarely wrong.
What is the secret to happiness?
Live like a San Luis Obispo local (SLO-cal) and try to discover the secret to happiness.
Live unlimited. For three days, we attempted to live without limits by saying yes to every experience and opportunity in order to discover if unlimited living actually leads to a happier being.
Who are we?
We’re Eileen, Marjorie, and Ayla. Three BuzzFeed writers with a wide range of resting happiness levels:
Eileen: If I were to rate my resting happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. I’d place mine at a 5. I wouldn't say I'm a pessimist; I'd say I'm a realist. Also, I like rating things on scales.
Marjorie: I always see the glass half full! I get that from my dad.
Ayla: I’m generally happy. I like talking to people; people make me happy — and animals. And music, specifically jazz music.
Where did we go?
The heart and cornerstone of San Luis Obispo is the Madonna Inn, a very pink and whimsical roadside inn that dates back to the late 1950s. This was seemingly the best place to set up base and start our search.
The secret to happiness is: knowing your limits.
We arranged with the hotel to interview one of the heads of staff. When we arrived, we were introduced to Joe, manager of the Madonna Inn. It turns out Joe was more of a realist than we expected to encounter in the "Happiest Place in America."
When we asked him, "Do you think the secret to happiness is living without limits?" Joe did not mince his words.
“You have to have limits," he replied, as though he was suggesting a slogan for the most dad-advice bumper sticker in the world.
"But Joooooooooooe, limits are for suckers!" we mentally responded (in reality we nodded thoughtfully).
As wise as Joe appeared and sounded, we were wary of heeding his words. We were in the happiest place in America! This wasn't a time for learning life lessons.
The secret to happiness is: not being goat tacos.
Our first foray into unlimited living was embarking on a horseback-riding trip through the hills near the inn. The owners of the inn, the Madonna family, (sorry all — the hotel is not named after the pop singer) are horse enthusiasts and own many horses that do everything from rodeo competition to hour-long tours.
We pulled up at the appointed area and were greeted by a very fat, very pregnant goat, who trotted up and let us pet her for about 15 minutes. The goat's owner, Jesse, told us this:
“The goat is named Bambi. No, he’s not pregnant. He’s on a see-food diet. He loves powdered donuts. I told him he’s allowed to be a free-range goat as long as he doesn’t head-butt anyone. As soon as he does…goat tacos.”
Ayla: I’m really worried Bambi is going to lose control and head-butt somebody. If you ever stop for lunch at the Madonna Inn and see goat tacos on the menu, please don’t tell me. We really bonded.
Eileen: Realistically, even if Bambi wanted to head-butt someone I don’t think he could achieve the speed necessary to cause any damage. If he decided to sit on someone, that would be a different story.
As we rode the horses up the mountain, we wondered if they were happy carrying humans up and down mountains all day. William, our leader, said that if a horse was unhappy and wanted to escape, they absolutely could. “Horses like having a job," he told us, "And these horses only do two to three tours a day two days a week. It's a pretty sweet gig."
We gave William our spiel and asked if he knew who the happiest person in SLO was. William gleefully replied that he, himself, was the happiest person in SLO.
The source of William's happiness? The vibrancy of the town, the fun nightlife, and the community at his school, Cal-Poly. He had just tried surfing for the first time the week before. We, not being enlightened happy SLO-cals, were worried.
"Was it hard?"
"Oh yeah!" William replied.
"Will you do it again?"
"Heck yeah!" he responded.
Meanwhile, we were finding our own sources of happiness.
Ayla: Great news: I had service up on top of Madonna Mountain and was able to check my emails. There was nothing urgent. Also, I have T-Mobile so I don't need to worry about data limits or bad coverage while I'm on a horse riding up a mountain. #sponsored
Eileen: My horse, a lovely mare named Mouse, had a personality more similar to mine than I care to admit. She was aloof, impatient, and seemed more than ready to get away from us amateurs and go eat something. Also, Ayla’s horse kept running into her.
Marjorie: My horse was named Pumpkin. There was a fat goat named Bambi. Life was pretty perfect until I watched Ayla’s horse poop in front of my face. Stank aside, it was a beautiful start to the day!
Ayla: On behalf of my horse, I am sorry.
The secret to happiness is: enjoying what you do.
Sore and invigorated, we finished our tour and bid farewell to William, Jesse, and Bambi the goat. Bambi had made friends with a little girl who had a bag of candy and was not sad to see us leave.
Back at the inn, we embarked on the second part of our introduction, a wine and cheese tasting. Our wine and cheese guide was Jess, who also suspiciously told us that she was the happiest person in SLO. She had been working at the inn for three years. The reason she liked it so much?
"The owners and management treat us like family, throwing us parties and giving generous gifts during the holidays. We just feel really appreciated," she told us while getting a little teary.
Eileen: I have never met a happier employee. Also, I think some of the cheeses were supposed to go with specific wines, but I was so hungry I just immediately started eating the cheese. She was not mad about it.
Ayla: Normally, I try not to eat wheat, but because this trip was about living unlimited I went through an entire packet of crackers. She wasn't mad about that either.
Marjorie: I couldn’t get over Jess’ red hair. Could I dye my hair red? Should I dye my hair red? Can I really live unlimited?!
We told Jess to call us if she was ever in LA. We were already making friends.
The secret to happiness is: whimsical living.
After the cheese tasting, we checked into our rooms, all of which were designed by Mrs. Madonna and had their own theme and color scheme.
Eileen: My room was called the Love Nest. The love nest in question was at the top of a spiral stair case. The room's carpet was probably five inches thick.
Ayla: My room had pink glitter wallpaper and a giant golden cupid floating above the bed. Three minutes after I entered the room, Eileen texted me asking if I had even put my luggage down before posting photos of the room on Instagram. No, I hadn’t.
Marjorie: The reason my room was called Krazy Dazy was instantly obvious when I saw that the walls were covered inch to inch with green and pink daisies. The Madonna Inn says “daisies are the friendliest flower,” and it couldn’t feel more like home. So, naturally, I did what anyone would do: I put on my pajama onesie.
The secret to happiness is: making friends.
Before we went to dinner, we decided to check out the pool and hot tub situation. Here we met our Canadian friends.
Ayla: They were a super nice couple whose names we didn’t write down on account of being in a hot tub without a pen. They had researched and made a spreadsheet of every single room at the Madonna Inn to decide which one to stay in. They invited us to use their fancy waterfall shower, but we said no thanks.
Eileen: I really wanted to see their shower. But we had dinner reservations. Also, I'm not totally sure they actually wanted us to come traipsing back to their room with them.
The secret to happiness is: cake and music.
We went to the inn's steakhouse for dinner. The restaurant was bustling, but we were quickly seated. The entire day people had been asking us if we were going to have dinner in the steakhouse, assuring us it was excellent. We were excited. Also, we were hungry.
Eileen: We ordered a slice of the pink champagne cake, a dessert that combined two things I love: champagne and cake.
We saw a woman dancing alone on the dance floor in an orange dress, so we decided to go and join her. She promptly left the dance floor.
Eileen: I suspect this is because our dancing knocked her socks off and she had to go find them.
Ayla: I have this thing where when I see a jazz band I have to ask if I can sit in and do a song with them, and on this night, I did not hold back. I’m sorry to everybody for doing this. I sang about five songs. Lucky that I am a real singer who has done at least two singing lessons.
Marjorie: There’s no downside to an empty dance floor. It’s just more space for my leap kicks and cross-floor twirling dances. Yes, it’s very hip nowadays.
The wife of the bandleader confided in us that the band never let anyone sit in with them for more than one song and that Ayla was obviously very good for getting asked back. Basically, if Ayla ever moved to SLO she would have a pretty steady gig.
The secret to happiness is: getting enough sleep.
After a full day of living unlimited, Day Two got off to a rough start. As we struggled to prepare for the day after too much dancing and too little sleep, we thought briefly of Joe the manager's words.
We contemplated the difference between living unlimited and happy versus living uninhibited and sleepy. We vowed to ourselves that we would focus on the former for the rest of the trip.
We ventured into the gorgeous town of San Luis Obispo for the first time in search of food. We found an adorable diner whose menu sported the magic words "french toast."
We were seated immediately by our friendly server and began to ask them about the town and its famous label. Expecting them to gush enthusiastically, we were surprised when they instead rolled their eyes.
They explained that while everyone in SLO is really friendly, it's not like they don't have problems: This is an expensive area to live in. A lot of people have to live outside of town in order to work here.
"But, people want to live here, right? Because it's so great?" We hoped that restating the question would result in them answering us the way we wanted.
Our server continued explaining how people who grew up in San Luis Obispo can't afford the area anymore because of the attention the town got from receiving that title. It's true people are nice, but that's not all there is to it.
It occurred to us that we may have been making a caricature of the area: This isn't some amusement park ride where all the characters grin and sing at you. San Luis Obispo is a beautiful, interesting, and complicated place just like every other town. They just manage to have a better outlook on life despite it.
The secret to happiness is: science, wine, and a cat called Riesling.
After our conversation with the server, we decided that we should be a little less cavalier about investigating the town's happiness reputation. Luckily our agenda for the day centered around the happiest of things: wine.
We spent most of the afternoon touring three different wineries in the San Luis Obispo region: Baileyana Winery, Claiborne & Churchill, and Autry Wines. We arranged transportation through a shuttle service called 101 Wine Tours, owned by local Laura Jeffrey.
Laura had moved up to the area from Orange County after her kids took off for college. In addition to being an SLO area winery expert, she'd also recently passed her level-two sommelier test.
"When you come up the 101 Freeway, there's a tunnel you go through coming north. Every time I go through it it's like the..." She sighed contentedly before finishing: "It's just more laid back here."
At Claiborne and Churchill, we met Shivn, an assistant winemaker. He let us watch some of the process of making syrah. As fascinating (and gorgeous) as he was, we definitely made more than one friend that day.
Marjorie: I’ve never visited a winery before, so this definitely passed my limits — in all the best ways. At the Claiborne & Churchill winery, we met an adorable animal (yet again). This time, it was a ridiculously chill cat named Riesling who took time out of his easy day to pose for pictures with us. Of course, he bonded most with Ayla, the animal whisperer. I’m not mad about it (insert side eye).
The secret to happiness is: living small and enjoying the wonders of life.
Our final winery stop was at Autry Wines. Steven Autry is a winemaker, former aerospace engineer, and musician on the side (he’s related to the singing cowboy Gene Autry). Steven’s winery was the smallest operation we visited but definitely the most significant experience.
Marjorie: Steve was incredibly fascinating. He used to be an aerospace technician and decided to quit that to start a winery. He builds some of his own wine-making machines and has all sorts of deep, intricate explanations for everything in life.
Ayla: A lot of great quotes. I found myself writing down everything he said, word for word, so I could try to capture some of his magic. If your job was to "stay outside smashing grapes" and to "find the optimal fruit expressions in wine," I guess you'd be pretty happy with that.
Steve told us that, soon, a couple of jet planes would be blowing over us as well and that we should pay attention when they did.
Marjorie: He rushed us outside to listen as a jet plane flew over. Its sounds bounced through the wine valley and ripped across the air around us. It was phenomenal; I’ve never heard anything like it. Steve explained some of the aerodynamics and told us we essentially heard what a rainbow sounds like. Casual, Steve. Real casual.
Ayla: I believe his words were: "What you heard right there? That was the sonic equivalent of a swirling rainbow..." (I wrote this down in my notebook.)
We were very quiet. Then, with each passing wave of sound we excitedly shrieked, and Steve would calmly tell us to be quiet as the next rolled over us. As the sun began to set, we climbed back into our shuttle.
The secret to happiness is: a sense of community — and taffy.
That evening, rested and refreshed, we cruised to downtown San Luis Obispo for its weekly farmers market.
Every Thursday night, the main thoroughfare in Old Town is shut down to traffic and opened up to local farmers, merchants, and musicians. This longstanding tradition had only been cancelled once in recent memory, and that was due to flooding caused by heavy rains.
While looking around, we realized that it felt like everyone here knew each other. A new musician began to set up in the middle of the street and apologized for being late while the crowd gently chided him. As he launched into a Stevie Wonder song, the gathering audience began to sing along.
We were constantly struck by people's friendliness. After the farmers market, we went to a local candy shop where we discovered an entire wall of saltwater taffy in every flavor imaginable. If anyone tried to purchase an under-filled bag, the cashier would send them back to the taffy to finish filling it.
"What's the best flavor?" we asked.
"Chicken and waffles," he replied. "It's the dark horse flavor."
He was right.
The secret to happiness is: The Lindy Hop.
We stopped by a local coffee shop. We noticed that there was a bar off to the side behind a curtain. We were so exhausted at this point that we were ready to go home. But then Ayla saw that it was jazz night.
Eileen: Ayla is like a jazz moth.
We became fixated on a dapper gentleman seated at the bar. Once the music started, he grabbed another woman at the bar and began dancing in the most interesting way we'd ever seen.
We nervously sidled up to him once he was done. His name was Drew, and he was a local. The woman he'd been dancing with was a local dance teacher, and many of the people there were fellow students. The dance he was doing was The Lindy Hop, which is, "Basically The Charleston but with bendier knees," he told us while demonstrating. We nodded like we knew what he was talking about.
Ayla: I knew what he was talking about. The Lindy Hop is a dance that originated in Harlem in the late 1920s. It's just very hard to do.
We'd become reluctant to ask our question. After getting to know the community, it sounded so childish, but we worked past our nerves and asked. Luckily, Drew was thrilled to answer us.
"Everything you need is here! It's a small town, but you can still do a lot. There's dance classes, there's music, there's arts," he replied.
We each took turns dancing with Drew, pretending that this was our regular Thursday night and that we didn't have to go back to the real world tomorrow.
The secret to happiness is: biking, the beach, and doing things outside.
Our trip was winding down. We were no closer to finding the happiest person in San Luis Obispo than when we started. But that had gradually become beside the point.
We played tennis and basketball on the inn's bright pink courts, went biking on the hotel's rental bikes, took a trip to nearby Avila Beach, and listened to The Beach Boys as we cruised down the shore. And suddenly we realized the secret to happiness.
The secret to happiness is: living your best life.
Yep. That's it. San Luis Obispo is a happy place because of a variety of reasons, and everyone who lives there has their own. When we asked people why they thought SLO was the happiest place in the US, the answers were specific to the person who answered them. And so we have concluded the following:
There is no secret to happiness. Just go forth and live.