Welcome to the happiest place in America

The word “happiness” is pounded into our skulls from a young age. “If you’re happy and you know it,” we sing, dutifully clapping our hands. We’re greeted with “Happy birthday!” and “Happy New Year!” We’re cajoled with “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Slightly misquoted: In spite of what you may have heard, Geography of Bliss author Eric Weiner never actually called Asheville the happiest place in America.

Later, we’re more cynically informed that “happiness is a warm gun,” a disturbing thought that ultimately gets us no closer to what exactly all this happiness means. And the more we repeat the cloying little word, the less sense it makes.

That might have something to do with the fact that the innocuous suggestion of happiness is far older than the concept that we humans not only could achieve it, but should achieve it. As a species, we’ve evolved from merely surviving to thriving to creating our own personal destiny.

“It’s a very American idea, but a modern idea, too,” says Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (Twelve, 2008). “It’s sort of a long evolution from the idea that we don’t have control over our destinies to the idea that we do, and then if we’re going to control our destinies, what more could we want than to be happy?”

However, he continues, “It also creates an expectation or obligation, especially in this country, to be happy. We think, if we’re not happy, what the hell is wrong with us?”

It was Weiner’s book (namely the “America” chapter) that led TV-news show 20/20 to report, “Asheville was recently named the happiest place in America.” Not exactly, Weiner notes: “I never actually said that Asheville was the happiest place, but it seems that people have latched onto that. I said it’s a place people go to because they think they will be happy. But it’s a nice place.”

While most of the locales mentioned in Bliss have quietly gone about their business post-happiness (or unhappiness) designation, Asheville has turned the five pages of text (in which Weiner writes, “It dawns on me that Asheville is an island. A crunchy island of peevish liberalism in a state that is not so liberal” and “Asheville is on the cusp. It could go either way”) into a national ad campaign.

“Is it Time to Reinvent Yourself, Retire, or Buy a Vacation Home?” asks a full-page Beverly-Hanks & Associates spot in New York magazine. The solution, laid out in glossy real-estate images, seems startlingly simple: “Asheville North Carolina,” we’re told. “The Happiest Place to Live in America.”

Happiness, the five-step program

There’s a man walking up Biltmore Avenue. He’s sporting a fedora, talking on a cell phone, carrying a briefcase. This could be a scene from anywhere, except that our businessman is dressed in cutoff jeans shorts and flip-flops. Welcome to Asheville.

The latest Hershey’s Bliss (a chocolate candy) ad campaign informs us that “Bliss is everywhere, you just have to unwrap it.” Asheville is doing its damnedest to do just that. Local facilitators Nina Anin and Thomas Young recently led the workshop “Joy: Your Natural State of Happiness” at the Center for Creative Living. Chicago-based personal-growth trainer Sara McIntosh chose Asheville to launch her Conscious Freedom Intensive course (see “Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Here’s How),”  May 28 Xpress). Goliath’s Happiness Press (publisher of alternative nutrition, health and food-preparation books) is headquartered in Asheville; so is the Great Cosmic Happy-Ass Card Company.

If we, as a city, aren’t happy yet, we should get an A for effort. But are workshops, relaxed dress codes and publishing companies enough to generate geographic bliss? Kathy Freston, author of Quantum Wellness: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to Health and Happiness (Weinstein Books, 2008), believes that achieving contentment is less about grand gestures and exterior elements, and more about small, focused changes within one’s self. During a June episode of Good Morning America she suggested five steps toward greater happiness. These include a 12-day cleansing diet, a daily meditation practice, volunteerism, positive visualization and journaling.

While none of these are new concepts, they’re all practices made readily available in Asheville. Healthful, organic food? Check. Meditation groups and classes? Check. Worthy causes and nonprofits in need of assistance? Got those, too. Hand-bound journals made from recycled paper, assembled by a nonprofit organization that you can take to your creative-writing workshop? Bingo.

Cosmic pizza

Most of a year after completing Bliss, Weiner believes that his thesis—that “place matters and happiness is a cultural construct more than we think it is”—Sean Bookman, co-owner of Namaste Sacred Events (www.namasteasheville.com), moved to Asheville because he felt the place would allow him to both run the business and live the life he desired.

“I first came to Asheville for the Governor’s Conference on Tourism at the Grove Park Inn as a representative for Condé Nast Traveler magazine,” he recalls. He slipped away to take a hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoy a Cosmic Karma pizza at Mellow Mushroom, where he called his wife to tell her he’d found the perfect place for them. Then, “As I looked up in the sky I saw fireworks in the direction of the Grove Park Inn. My stomach dropped as I remembered that I was supposed to be hosting the fireworks and giving a little speech at the opening of the conference. It kind of solidified that I needed to leave that old life and follow my inspiration.”

In 2002, the Bookmans opened Namaste Yoga & Healing Center. They sold the yoga studio earlier this year to focus on the sacred-events business, “a locally based production company dedicated to presenting art, music, spirituality and consciousness on a global level.” But more has changed than Bookman’s calling card. Prior to his Asheville move, he says, he was “in disguise as a buttoned-up businessman.”

Today, in full beard and dreadlocks, Bookman muses, “Is it a coincidence that I never bought a Bic razor again since I moved to Asheville?” He says his life—which now includes two young daughters—is a happy one in Asheville (except for the downtown-parking situation, which he describes as “a crime against business owners and locals”). But Bookman suspects that happiness is less about hairstyle and cosmic pizza, and more about something intangible—something maybe even mystical.

“On a deeper level, the ‘happy feeling’ comes from the geographic, geological and prophetic standpoint,” he offers. “Asheville is sitting in the most ancient mountain range on earth, sitting on a bed of crystal, and has been known as a healing ground for time immemorial.”

Happy real estate

Katie Skinner, co-owner of the L.O.F.T. of Asheville (www.loftofasheville.com), relates much of her “happy feeling” to the success of her business. The boutique (its name a clever acronym for Lost Objects, Found Treasures) offers an eclectic array of gift and decor items, from garden art and unique furniture to journals and rustic picture frames. “What I’ve carried here has changed as Asheville has changed,” she notes.

Skinner’s business is a success story (it’s been open for a dozen years now), and so is the niche she’s carved for herself in Asheville. People relocating to this area these days are often struck by the high rents (especially in relation to salaries), the tight job market and the expense of home ownership. But when Skinner made the move in 1992, she recalls, “I wanted to get a new job and get out of Florida. As soon as I got here, everything fell right into place.”

Such claims of synchronicity are as routine in Asheville as yoga teachers and Subaru Foresters. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: The common experience of the stars aligning is yet another indication of the city’s beatitude. But Skinner’s case of right-place/right-time meant she was able to buy the building that houses her store, as well as a home in desirable Montford. “When I bought that building, it was cheap,” she says. “I’m glad I got what I got when I got it: It gives me a sense of security.”

Happiness at street level

Xpress polled a handful of Asheville residents to find out just how happy they are in this, the city of bliss. Borrowing Weiner’s unscientific rating system, we asked these people to assign themselves a happiness number from 1 to 10 (1 being morose, 10 being transcendent). Here are the results:

Name Chris Morton
Happiness number 9
Is Asheville a happy place? Yes.
What makes Asheville happy for you? The beauty of the area, the diversity, the arts and all the things to do.

Name Kathryn Sawdon
Happiness number 2
Why are you unhappy? Personal problems.
What makes Asheville happy for you? I like hiking, the woods, my dog … Asheville is the good part of life.

Name Carriett Smith
Happiness number 8
Is Asheville a happy place? Yes.
What makes Asheville happy for you? The mountains and the weather.

Name Adrian Bluford
Happiness number 1
Why are you unhappy? Relationship issues.
What makes Asheville happy for you? I enjoy the music and the people.

Name Stan Nikolski
Happiness number 8
Is Asheville a happy place? Yes. It’s a great place to live—I’m pretty fortunate.
What makes Asheville happy for you? The music scene, I have a great business [he runs a hot-dog cart downtown], my wife has a great job. I work when the weather is good and I get to meet nice people.

 

No one, having met Skinner, would doubt the bubbly redhead is genuinely enjoying herself. But are a successful business, a nice home and a sense of security the same thing as happiness? Weiner says, “I kind of conclude at the end of the book that maybe [happiness] is not the highest ideal we should be seeking.”

“I think the happiest people weren’t looking for happiness per se,” he adds. “They wouldn’t quite articulate it that way. They’re trying to lead a meaningful life.”

This definitely seems to be the case with the L.O.F.T.‘s proprietress. When asked what she loves about Asheville, she quickly responds, “Diversity. The majority of the people I know are so accepting of anyone who comes here. You can truly be who you are without putting on a facade.”

Slactivism

That sense of freedom to find oneself is definitely a motivating factor for people to move to Asheville, but there’s another, amorphous quality to the city that may explain its ultimate felicity: slackness.

This isn’t to imply that nothing gets done around here, or that the typical Asheville resident lacks motivation, capability or creativity. Quite the opposite, in fact: Asheville’s population is inspired by a variety of interests: artistic media, spiritual pursuits and entrepreneurial endeavors. It’s just that no one gets in too much of a hurry about it. For transplants from larger urban centers, the less-cutthroat environment is a relief. For those who come from smaller towns, the supportive, friendly clime is welcoming. So what if few people are getting rich or famous quickly? According to Weiner, lowered expectations are the surprise ingredient to true contentment.

“There’s a nuance there that some people miss, that you can have low expectation, but that doesn’t mean you’re a lazy person who doesn’t strive,” the author says. “What you don’t have expectations about are the results. Go give 100-percent effort to whatever you’re doing, but your happiness isn’t tied to the results.”

Since Asheville and many who live here can be considered works in progress, this seems like sound advice. So we strive (or don’tr strive) for happiness, while we continue to become our most authentic selves, express ourselves fully and carve out our individual niches in this city, doing so under the “Happiest Place in America” banner. Even if it’s a bit of a misnomer. After all, living in a town with such an accolade can make one feel downright … happy.

who: Eric Weiner
what: Author reads from The Geography of Bliss
where: Malaprop’s
when: Thursday, July 3. 7 p.m. (Free. www.malaprops.com or 254-6734.)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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12 thoughts on “Welcome to the happiest place in America

  1. façade

    Um, uh. Was he talking about a different city; was there a typo?
    He has been here before, right?
    Were ‘living wage’, ‘air quality’, ‘racism’ or ‘homelessness’ criteria?

  2. Asheville Native

    Keep on buying Mr & Mrs. Transplant, seeking what you think is found externally. We’ll happily collect your money.

  3. “Um, uh. Was he talking about a different city; was there a typo?
    He has been here before, right? Were ‘living wage’, ‘air quality’, ‘racism’ or ‘homelessness’ criteria?”

    As it says in the article, he never said it was the happiest place, only that it’s a place people go to look for it.

  4. ohforshame

    Keep on insulting people who come here. See how long that money lasts and goes to local businesses with that attitude.

    (I’m wnc born too, btw)

  5. david

    “Were ‘living wage’, ‘air quality’, ‘racism’ or ‘homelessness’ criteria?”

    Cost of living is far lower in asheville than many other places i’ve lived. You can make twice as much other places, but the cost of living is three times higher. try finding a ‘living wage’ in Raleigh. I’m okay with lower wages, since it is all relative. It has gotten a LOT more expensive in the last decade, true, but I can still live in the area for a LOT less than any other part of the country that i’ve hung my hat. Ever been to a grocery store in San Francisco? Talk about pricey.

    without rich ‘yankee’ money, i dont think i would have found any employment in the last decade.
    But, yeah, “air quality” sucks. And, yet, people still flock here.

    “Racism” is no worse than anywhere else, and arguably, far better. try Detroit, Chicago, or LA if you want real racism.

    “Homelessness”, too. Try San Diego, San Francisco, or NYC. Waaaaay worse. Do you think a handful of people in Pritchard park really constitutes a ‘problem’? Most the ‘homeless’ i know in the area consider themselves ‘home free’.

    Asheville is, by leaps and bounds, the best place i have ever been lucky enough to dwell. A very close-knit community, if your into that sort of thing, glorious weather, fireflies, a relaxed attitude, proximity to the mountains, and, as Sean Bookman says in the above article, “sitting in the most ancient mountain range on earth, sitting on a bed of crystal, and has been known as a healing ground for time immemorial.”

    Anyone who says differently is, in my opinion, misinformed, to say the least. Come visit downtown Spartanburg sometime, please. You’ll appreciate asheville after that, I promise.

  6. William P Miller

    Asheville is a very happy place. Locals are used to it. Yankee transplants must unwind to appreciate it. Most of them do, thank God. How many times can a New Yorker keep a serious face and ignore a “good morning, how are you doing today”? We wear them down, most of the time. And the serious face addicts move back to yankeeland because they cannot stand the smiling “howdy neighbors” of Asheville, Jewel of the Confederacy. God bless sweet Dixieland. God bless friendliness and the happiest place in the USA: Asheville North Carolina!

  7. JDNC

    How ethnocentric is it possible to be? I think Mr Marshall has maxed out on the scale. The concept of Happiness is American?! OMG. Has he ever read anything that wasn’t written in America last week? Man has ALWAYS searched for purpose and happiness. Geez.

    And Facade … how do you get up in the morning? Things are so terrible here. I guess you’ve lived all over the world to know that the issues you spoke of only exist here. I’ve lived all over the world. Maybe you were just in different places.

  8. William P Miller

    jdnc, if you think Asheville just doesn’t make it for you, perhaps you should try somewhere else. Asheville is a very happy place, for most of us. And Southern culture has a lot to do with it. I thank God I was born and raised in Asheville North Carolina!

  9. JDNC

    William – you completely missed my sarcasm – loosen up. I love it here and I love America. The rest of the world pales in comparison. I’ve been all over the the US and World. Those who blame America for everything that is wrong with the world live in a small egocentric and ethnocentric bubble.

  10. William P Miller

    Good post JDNC. Yes I have travelled to most states in the union and also know, by comparison, just how wonderful WNC is.

    Asheville is the happiest place in the whole USA!

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