Is everybody happy? Metrics matter

We love to rank things, especially in the travel biz, but reader beware: Metrics matter, and we don’t like to pick the same winner over and over. Sometimes we aim to surprise or shock.

Consider Stoughton, population 12,670 and 20 miles southeast of Madison. WalletHub.com this year declared it one of the nation’s top 20 “beach towns to live in.” No other Wisconsin city made the cut, although Pewaukee and Mequon were numbers 24 and 26, respectively.

“Our data set ranges from housing costs to share of for-sale waterfront homes to quality of beach water,” WalletHub, a virtual financial advisor, explains online. No. 1 was Naples, Fla., followed by the state’s southernmost sister, Key West.

Fair enough, but Stoughton? The Stoughton that I know is deeply proud of its Norwegian roots and sports a quirky community spirit. Locals support performing and folk arts, host lively Syttende Mai celebrations and insist Stoughton is where the coffee break was born.

The city has personality, but its finest aquatic location – Troll Beach – is little more than a very nice swimming pool. Think sandy, zero-depth entry. Lifeguards on staff and inflatables for climbing. Not the makings for a beach town, especially in a Great Lakes state with at least 15,000 inland lakes.

Lake Kegonsa State Park, six miles north of Stoughton, has a beach but is best known for boating and fishing. Roughly 25 miles east is Lake Koshkonong’s 10,595 acres, which may well attract more panfish than swimmers.

So the metrics that WalletHub used to study 227 beach town finalists, in my humble opinion, drew at least one odd conclusion.

Now the big news is that Boulder, Colo., is the nation’s happiest city. The declaration comes from National Geographic and Gallup researcher Dan Witters, whose conclusions about happiness globally are the magazine’s November cover story.

Witters relied on 15 metrics, “from eating healthy and learning something new every day to civic engagement, financial security, vacation time, and even dental checkups.” No U.S. city, per capita, has more people opting to walk to work than Boulder. A low rate of obesity and high sense of purpose also figure into the winning formula.

The spunky college town, whose population is just under 100,000, has the Rocky Mountains as its picturesque backdrop. Unknown is whether marijuana legalization affects Boulder’s happiness quotient (two other Colorado cities – Fort Collins and Colorado Springs – also made the top 20).

In 2015, National Geographic ranked Madison as one of the world’s 10 happiest places. Beautiful lakeshore surroundings, an active lifestyle and close-knit sense of community made the difference back then.

It’s sure nice to get noticed, especially on such a spectacular stage, but the biggest value from these attempts to enumerate and enlighten is the attention that lesser-known cities gain. This world is home to many second- and third-tier destinations that are worth considering for a getaway.

Example: Lafayette, La., dubbed the happiest city in America in 2014 by researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The city of 119,000 is in the heart of Acadiana, a region proud of its scrappy French Canadian heritage.

You feel a strong sense of place while toe-tapping at Blue Moon Saloon, an ordinary but wildly popular music venue in a residential area. Chubby Carrier, a Grammy winner, and his Bayou Swamp Band play zydeco and banter in an almost-foreign dialect.

You see it as couples crowd the dance floor for a smooth two-step or waltz at Randol’s, after filling up on beans and rice, crawfish etoufee, jambalaya. Ending a meal with bread pudding is a pretty sure bet.

You taste it in the boudin, a spicy sausage of pork, blood, rice and Cajun seasonings. Locals love it as much as a Badger loves bratwurst, although they tend to not eat the casing.

Getting out on the water likely means a swamp tour, maybe with a guide who flings bait at gators. The water is shallow, murky and mucky, a habitat that egrets, bald eagles and herons all love.

Ribbed metal washboards, still used as rhythm instruments, are sold in adult and child sizes at a festival’s arts and crafts fair. Other music makers build fiddles, accordions, guitars and more.

Are these Lafayette folks genuinely happy? Who knows, and I guess that’s not really the point. Most people realize that happiness is more about a state of mind than a specific place, person or possession.

But the unusual culture – which makes much of Louisiana seem like a foreign country – would surely be even more obscure without these “best of” lists to make us notice. For more about the area: lafayettetravel.com, 337-232-3737

Lonely Planet, a travel media company whose products include travel guidebooks, each year announces the world’s hottest destinations. On the list for 2018:

Chile – best country (dramatic geographic extremes: Andes Mountains, Atacama Desert, Patagonia’s windy wilderness).

Seville, Spain – top city (under an artistic rebirth and a “Game of Thrones” film site).

Belfast and the Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland – must-see region (natural beauty, good whiskey, trendy neighborhoods instead of Catholic-Protestant rioting).

Tallinn, Estonia – best-value destination (on the Baltic Sea, walkable and a well-preserved segment of Eastern Europe).