Money Can’t Buy Happiness? In This City, It Only Takes $42,000 Per Year

The cast of "Atlanta"

As the cast of Atlanta might know, the cost of living makes it relatively easy to get by in this Southern city. | FX

In most big cities, the cost of living is bordering on the outrageous. Rent prices alone in some places are enough to take a huge bite out of most people’s budgets. But when you add the costs of transportation (and the hours lost stuck in traffic), food, and everything else, life can become very expensive. It can be miserable. And that has many people wondering how much it takes to actually be happy.

But you’ve always heard money can’t buy happiness, right? Or was Gatsby wrong? There really isn’t an answer, of course, as it’s all subjective. But a report from Gallup gives us some direction.

“In the U.S., the chances of experiencing three positive emotions or actions — happiness, enjoyment and smiling/laughter — on any given day increases with household income. But those chances reach their limit at around $75,000 per year,” Gallup’s report said. “This limit varies regionally, however. Some areas maximize positive emotions at much lower income levels than others.”

In other words, you can attain a certain level of happiness for a given price. But that price varies depending on where you live. By looking at 12 cities across the country, we can see where happiness is cheap and where it requires a substantial income, according to Gallup’s research done in partnership with Sharecare and Time magazine. Here are the 12 cities named in the research, starting where happiness comes at a high price.

1. Seattle

Seattle is one of four cities from Gallup’s data that are in the highest income strata. So you need a relatively high income in order to reach peak happiness. That income level? It’s into the six-figures at $105,000. Like the other cities at this level (and the numerous ones not specifically mentioned), the cost of living in Seattle is high and increasing. In Seattle’s case, rising housing costs are eating further into people’s budgets.

Next: The City of Brotherly Love

2. Philadelphia

Liberty Bell

Tourists view the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Next up in the $105,000 club is Philadelphia. This might seem strange to some, especially when you see some of the other cities further down the list. Philadelphia, though a large, expensive city in its own right, is usually considered to have a cheaper cost of living than some of its East Coast neighbors. Nevertheless, Gallup’s data show a six-figure income is what’s required to buy happiness in Philly.

Next: New York City

3. New York City

New York City traffic

Traffic makes its way through Times Square. | Michael Nagle/Getty Images

New York City, likely the most expensive city in America in terms of cost of living, seems much more suited to the $105,000 price tag Gallup assigns it. There’s a lot of money in New York, and everything — housing, transportation, etc. — has an inflated price. If you believe money can’t buy happiness, life in New York might provide you with evidence — unless, of course, you’re earning at a fairly high level.

Next: Los Angeles

4. Los Angeles

Californians playing beach volleyball

Californians play beach volleyball. | Corky Buczyk/Shutterstock

New York’s West Coast counterpart, in many respects, is Los Angeles. And Los Angeles is the final of four cities that have a high price for happiness, again at $105,000. It’s not too much of a stretch, though, to assume other California cities, such as San Francisco and San Diego, are in the same ballpark. Everyone likes the fun in the California sun, making it a more expensive place to live.

Next: A city in the one-comma club

5. Houston

Houston

You won’t need a six-figure income to be happy in Houston. | iStock.com

Life is a bit cheaper in Houston — a happy life, anyway. For those in Houston, the good news is land is plentiful in every direction, as opposed to some of the large, expensive coastal cities where building codes restrict housing supplies. In order to achieve peak happiness, Gallup’s data said an income of $75,000 is required. That’s not a small figure, but it’s a lot easier to attain than $105,000.

Next: Boston

6. Boston

Boston skyline in Massachusetts

Happiness in Boston comes at a cheaper price than in Philadelphia. | iStock.com/movinggstill

Depending on where you live in Boston, life can get expensive in a hurry. This is one of those East Coast cities that you would assume costs more than a city like Philadelphia. But Gallup’s data say otherwise, assigning Boston a peak happiness income requirement of $75,000 like Houston. These are the only two cities specifically named within the $75,000 grouping.

Next: Washington, D.C.

7. Washington, D.C.

Washington DC in Spring

Despite the government’s budget woes, happiness in Washington, D.C., is pretty affordable. | iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

Like Boston, Washington, D.C., is full of history. It’s also full of high rents and people earning high salaries. Even so, Gallup’s numbers indicate you need to earn only $54,000 to achieve peak happiness. Amazingly, that’s half of what it takes in New York or Los Angeles. And to reiterate, this means a person making $54,000 in D.C. is about as happy as a Seattleite earning $105,000.

Next: Dallas

8. Dallas

Dallas cityscape with blue sky

You only need a little more than $50,000 to achieve happiness in Dallas. | iStock.com/f11photo

Our second Texas city, Dallas is another metropolis (there’s a slew of them) that landed in the $54,000 strata, per Gallup’s data. It’s located in what Gallup labels the West South Central region, which, along with the West North Central region, are the only two (of nine) where $54,000 annually can achieve peak happiness. This, of course, would include other big Texas cities, such as San Antonio, too.

Next: Miami

9. Miami

Miami condos

Happiness in Miami is surprisingly affordable. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

You don’t typically associate Miami with the term “affordable.” But if Gallup’s data are anything to go off of, Miami is relatively affordable compared to many other big cities on the list. In Miami, peak happiness can be achieved on an income of $54,000. But, as you can imagine, the sky is really the limit in South Florida. Miami is slated with numerous other cities, including Washington, D.C., in the South Atlantic region in Gallup’s report.

Next: Phoenix

10. Phoenix

A Phoenix golf course

You can live the affordable good life in Phoenix. | //visitphoenix

The entire western part of the country — represented by two regions (Pacific and Mountain) in Gallup’s report — requires relatively high incomes. But Phoenix was one of the 12 cities that had large enough sample sizes to get into the nitty gritty of it all. And when it was all said and done, it turns out $54,000 will suffice to buy happiness in Arizona.

Next: Chicago

11. Chicago

Downtown Chicago

In Chicago, you don’t have to rake in mountains of cash to be happy. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Chicago isn’t cheap. But like many other cities in its strata, happiness can be attained for a relative bargain compared to some other large coastal towns. In Chicago, you can buy happiness for $54,000, just like Washington, D.C., Miami, and Dallas. Depending on where and how you live, of course, the reality on the ground might differ greatly from what Gallup’s reporting.

Next: Atlanta

12. Atlanta

Atlanta skyline with highways

Atlanta is where the phrase “money can’t buy happiness” is the least effective. | iStock.com/Sean Pavone

Of the 12 cities pointed out by the Gallup report, Atlanta was the only city where you can buy happiness for $42,000. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to afford everything you want. But it does mean you can be as happy as a New Yorker for less than half of the earnings.

Check out the full Gallup report here.

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