It seems only yesterday Florida was considered the happiest place in America. A bounty of sun, no state income tax, 700 miles of beaches, Disney World and more new condominiums than speculators could flip. It’s no wonder that just five years ago, one thousand new residents arrived each day. But this week, Men’s Health magazine tells us the Sunshine State is arguably the saddest place in America.
Florida’s five largest cities landed among the magazine’s top 20 “Frown Towns” – and three of them, St. Petersburg (America’s saddest city, according to Men’s Health), Tampa (number four) and Miami (number eight) make the top 10. Jacksonville came in at number 13 and Orlando at number nineteen.
So how did these Margaritaville metropolises get ranked with sad sacks like Detroit (number two) and Toledo (number 11)? Men’s Health is admittedly better known for ranking abdominal exercises and sex positions than population metrics. But the magazine says it collected such data as unemployment, suicide rates and household antidepressant use to determine that St. Petersburg (a city it notes once received a record 768 consecutive days of sunshine) is gloomier than rainy Seattle, which isn’t even among the top 50.
What Men’s Health doesn’t answer – it concedes its list “is more statistical than psychological” – is what’s causing all the Florida funk. For that, maybe it’s better to ask the tens of thousands of people who’ve been leaving the state in recent years. Florida actually saw a net population loss of 58,000 in 2009, the first for the state since World War II, and here’s what many of them have been telling us: the peninsula didn’t turn out to be the paradise they’d been promised. The ever-widening gap between what people earn in Florida, a state that continues to rely on low-wage industries like tourism, and what it costs to live there – there actually is a state income tax in Florida, and it’s called homeowner’s insurance – is just one factor clouding the sunshine. Being able to wear flip-flops in January just doesn’t seem to offset lousy government, nonexistent public transit and underachieving schools anymore.
But according to Men’s Health, Florida isn’t alone when it comes to dashed Sunbelt dreams. Nevada has two cities in the saddest 10 (Reno and Las Vegas) and California has two (Bakersfield and Sacramento) in the top 20. And lest you think nice weather does not a cheerful city make, consider the happiest town on the Men’s Health list: Honolulu.