It seems like every day there's a new list of best places to live. Some are no-brainers: Beach towns, outdoorsy locales and cool California places are omnipresent. But other mentions can seem random. What makes people happy where they live?

A new study works to identify the attributes that contribute to well-being in a community. A Yale-led team of researchers compared data from several sources, including the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which is based on surveys of more than 338,000 Americans. The data included the life evaluation index, in which respondents rate their current life situation as well as their expected future life situation in five years.

Out of 77 community attributes, the researchers found a dozen that make the biggest impact.

"We came up with attributes that explained a large portion of the variation we see in well-being," said first author and assistant professor medicine Brita Roy, M.D. in a statement. "Several factors were related to income and education, which is expected. But we also found that attributes related to the community environment and the way people commute and variables related to health care were linked to well-being."

Here are the 12 attributes related to demographics, clinical care, social and economic factors, and the physical environment that explained 91 percent of the variation in well-being across the U.S.:

  • Preventable hospital stays per 100,000 people
  • Percent divorced
  • Percent with education level, ninth-12th grade
  • Percent high school graduates or equivalent
  • Percent who commute by public transit
  • Percent of children in poverty
  • Mean household income
  • Percent who commute by bicycle
  • Demographics, percent black
  • Percent eligible women obtaining mammography
  • Number of federally qualified health centers
  • Percent of people with bachelor's degree

Unexpected but notable results

Richmond, California The town of Richmond, California, works across many sectors to improve health and well-being. (Photo: BondRocketImages/

Some of the findings of the study, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE, were surprising to researchers.

For example, Roy told NPR, it was an unexpected but notable result that areas with higher percentages of black residents reported higher levels of well-being.

"Having something that shows greater diversity is actually better for all of us I think is a really important finding," she said.

The researchers suggest that leaders can use the findings to inform strategies to increase well-being in their communities, pointing out that promoting diversity and better education, transportation, and primary care may make a difference.

"To improve the well-being of a community, you need to work across multiple sectors and fields, to include the economy and health care and urban planning and transportation," said Roy, who gives examples of communities in Richmond, California, and Chittenden County, Vermont, that have taken this approach to health.

"Working across different groups, in coalitions, has the greatest potential to improve health and quality of life."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

What makes us happy about where we live?
Diversity, commuting and health care matter when it comes to our overall well-being.