I’ve often jokingly told friends who do not AND have not ever made their home here in The Bayou State, “If you can be happy in Louisiana, you can be happy anywhere.” And when a working paper from Harvard and the Vancouver School was made public last month stating- based their study of CDC info, demographics, and income- that Louisiana is home to the top 5 happiest cities in the United States, I was reminded of this little joke I’ve told, usually in response to the ridiculousness of our politicians, the horror of our natural disasters, or the vast social and economic problems we face. There’s some truth in most humor, but my honest feeling is this: If you truly find happiness here, in this place of great joy and great decay, you really never want to leave.

I was born here in South Louisiana, and my mother’s family began its American journey in what was Spanish-ruled New Orleans over 200 years ago. One of my great grandfathers was sent here serving with the Spanish Armada, so the story goes, but when it was time for him to depart back for Spain, he jumped from his ship, into the roaring Mississippi, and swam back to shore. He never looked back. Something about this place gets into your blood. I still feel it mine all these generations later.

Yet, it’s far from Utopia. It’s infuriating as hell at times: were it not for our neighbor Mississippi, a beautiful place in its own right, we’d likely be at the bottom of the barrel in every category, be it education, economics, or medical care, that makes an area an actual good place to live. Louisiana is and has always been a place of horrific violence, the ugliest, terrifying side of nature, oppression, ignorance, and secrets. But also a place of startling beauty, passionate music, camaraderie, hospitality, and perseverance. In such a hopeless place that should by most rights be under the sea, our predecessors and forebears made their lives. They celebrated what was good. They made families who made families, and they stuck it out and stuck together. Many, of course, still do.

So what is it about this murky, wet place that keeps so many of us here? I like to think our hearts just know their home. Sure, many of us must move on, it’s a necessity to at times to make a better life in another place, but ask any ex-expatriate once they’ve left, and they will tell you, it’s in Louisiana where they’ve left their heart, and this place still whispers their name.

Maybe this isn’t really the happiest place in America, but it is for us who love Louisiana, always home.