Study: Happiest Cities in North Carolina


A relatively mild climate, breathtaking scenery and a steadily shrinking unemployment rate are just a few reasons to celebrate the Tarheel State. In fact, we bet North Carolina's brightening economic outlook and low cost of living have residents jumping for joy. That joy is having a spillover effect, and thousands of newcomers have put down roots here over the past decade.

We've already discovered what makes cities like Asheville and New Bern so popular, and now we thought it was time to take things a step further and check out which places in North Carolina are the happiest.

Study Methodology

North Carolina is a unique blend of major metropolitan areas and smaller out-of-the way hamlet. To make our study a little less complicated, we focused only on cities with a population of 25,000 or higher. Once we pared down the list, we assigned each remaining city a ranking based on seven key pieces of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and FBI Uniform Crime Reports, which are explained below. The ones that are included in our top 10 have the best cumulative rank for the following:

  1. Restaurants
  2. Crime rate
  3. Commute
  4. Departure time
  5. Income
  6. Divorce rate
  7. Housing

Research studies have shown that the more personal connections you have, the happier you tend to be. We think enjoying a dinner out with friends or family can be a huge mood booster, so we considered the number of restaurants per capita each city has to offer.

Being plagued by fears about your safety can eat away at your happiness levels. We decided to look at each city's safety rating, as measured by the odds of being the victim of a violent crime.

No one likes to deal with heavy traffic first thing in the morning or when you're trying to get home after a long day. If you're concerned about the daily drive leaving you in a sour mood, take a look at how each city ranks based on the average commute time.

Early to bed and early to rise may make you healthy, wealthy and wise, but it can also leave you feeling a little happier at the end of the day. Under the assumption that people who get to go home during daylight hours are happier, we factored in the percentage of residents who are on their way to work before 5 a.m.

It's hard to keep a positive outlook if you're constantly dealing with money troubles. We decided to rank each city based on median household income to see where the happier (i.e., wealthier) population falls in this state.

Your wedding day is one you're supposed to cherish, but not every couple enjoys a happily ever after. We wanted to see how satisfied couples seem to be so we considered the percentage of men and women who are divorced in each city.

Whether you rent or own, you want to make sure you're getting the most bang for your buck. If you're paying too much, it may leave you feeling a little jaded about your choice of city. Our final happiness criterion is measured in terms of the percentage of income residents spend on housing.

10 Happiest Cities in North Carolina

10. Raleigh

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 460 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 236.3
  • Average commute time: 21.4 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 2.2%
  • Median household income: $53,699
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 7.7% of males, 12.4% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 23.6%

North Carolina's capital city is one of the fastest growing in the nation, and from what we can see, the 423,000 people who live here have plenty to praise. Even though Raleigh is a sprawling urban city with a large surrounding metro area, it's still possible to find a home for a decent price and not fight heavy traffic every day on the way to work. When it comes to the restaurant scene, there's everything from upscale eateries to low-key diners. The Pit is a local legend of sorts if you're in the mood for barbecue.

Did You Know: Raleigh is named for Sir Walter Raleigh, who attempted to establish the first English settlement in the New World during the 1580s.

9. Garner

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 411 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 413.1
  • Average commute time: 25.6 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 2.7%
  • Median household income: $61,705
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 7.8% of males, 12.8% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 22%

If the smiles are big in Raleigh, they're even bigger just down the road in Garner. There are almost 27,000 people residing in this neat little suburb, and some of the things they're happy about include moderately priced housing and a $61,000 median income. The neighborhoods are also a little safer compared to the capital. And you've still got a great selection of dining choices, including local favorite Angie's Restaurant.

Did You Know: "American Idol" Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery is a Garner native.

8. Holly Springs

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 1,414 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 1,837.1
  • Average commute time: 28.7 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 1.7%
  • Median household income: $89,187
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 6.5% of males, 10.7% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 20.4%

The nearly 27,000 people who make their home in Holly Springs will be glad to see their city on our list. Not only is it the safest location in our rankings, but it also has one of the highest median household incomes, at over $89,000. Houses sell for a bit more than they do in nearby Raleigh, but a bigger paycheck means residents are spending only about a fifth of their income to keep a roof over their heads.

Did You Know: Holly Springs' Bombshell Beer Co. is the only all-female owned microbrewery in North Carolina.

7. Huntersville

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 667 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 570.9
  • Average commute time: 25.8 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 1.3%
  • Median household income: $85,660
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 7.4% of males, 8.5% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 20.5%

Huntersville is the perfect spot for families and professionals who want to escape the hustle and bustle of Charlotte. About 49,000 people call the city home and an increasing number of new residents head here every year, largely drawn by the safe neighborhoods and affordable housing. The nearly $86,000 median income isn't too shabby either. Even though the commute's a little longer compared to some of our other cities, you can still make it work in under 30 minutes on average.

Did You Know: Huntersville borders Lake Norman, the largest manmade body of fresh water in North Carolina.

6. Sanford

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 373 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 327.3
  • Average commute time: 21 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 3.2%
  • Median household income: $40,805
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 9% of males, 10.7% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 22%

Sanford is situated in the central part of the state, roughly 40 miles from both Raleigh and Fayetteville. Obviously, the 29,000 people who live here must be pretty content for it to rank so high on our list. A little over 3% of the workforce are up to face the day before the sunrise, and they only spend 21 minutes in the car on average. Median home prices are among the lowest of any of our 10 cities, something that surely makes prospective homebuyers feel glad.

Did You Know: The Sanford Pottery Festival is the largest annual event of its kind in the state.

5. Mooresville

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 242 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 344.3
  • Average commute time: 22.6 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 3.2%
  • Median household income: $53,066
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 6.4% of males, 11.1% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 24.5%

Located about 15 miles north of Huntersville, the city of Mooresville is a pretty happy-go-lucky place from what we can see. It ties with Sanford for the highest percentage of residents who are up and on the road before 5 a.m., and it also has the best rating for the number of restaurants per capita. Caruso's is a good pick if you want to enjoy an Italian feast with family, but if you want to sample handcrafted beer and split some cheese fries with friends, head to Duckworth's Grill & Taphouse.

Did You Know: A number of NASCAR drivers have homes in and around Mooresville, including Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

4. Matthews

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 350 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 600.3
  • Average commute time: 25.6 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 3.1%
  • Median household income: $68,608
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 7.5% of males, 10.2% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 22.2%

Matthews doesn't take the top spot in any one category, but for the almost 29,000 people who've settled down here, it's still a little slice of heaven. If you're planning on buying a home, you'll find neighborhoods that are both safe and quiet. Housing won't eat up a lot of your pay, and based on the median income, you'll make a little more than your neighbors in Charlotte. You won't have to worry about being stuck in traffic for hours on the way to work, and early risers will have company when they head out on the highway.

Did You Know: Matthews was originally called Stumptown around the turn of the 19th century after cotton farmers cleared the land of trees.

3. Apex

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 561 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 1,184.4
  • Average commute time: 23.2 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 1%
  • Median household income: $89,398
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 7.1% of males, 10.2% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 19.7%

For the 40,000 or so people who live here, Apex is the pinnacle of happiness. Not only is it extremely safe, but residents pull in a hefty chunk of change on payday and they don't have to spend a lot of it on housing. Workers are usually able to start their day in a good mood, since it takes only about 23 minutes to reach their destination. When 5 o'clock rolls around, they head to places like Daniel's Restaurant, which offers high-end cuisine in a casual setting.

Did You Know: Apex residents and visitors can take a ride aboard an historic steam engine at the North Carolina Railroad Museum.

2. Chapel Hill

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 294 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 673.4
  • Average commute time: 19.4 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 0.4%
  • Median household income: $59,793
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 3.8% of males, 5.9% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 22.6%

Chapel Hill residents share more than just a passion for college basketball; they also happen to live in a city that's one of the most upbeat on our list. What accounts for everyone's good mood? It could be because they have the shortest average commute in our rankings, and they don't have to fork over big bucks for housing. Married couples seem to be pretty satisfied, considering the combined divorce rate is the lowest in our rankings. We think it might have something to do with all the delicious dishes cooked up at places like Lantern Restaurant and Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe.

Did You Know: Chapel Hill is home to the main campus of the University of North Carolina and its five-time NCAA championship Tarheel basketball team.

1. Cary

  • Restaurants per capita: 1 per 489 inhabitants
  • Odds of being the victim of a violent crime: 1 in 1,226.2
  • Average commute time: 22.2 minutes
  • Percentage of residents leaving for work before 5 a.m.: 1.4%
  • Median household income: $91,349
  • Percentage of residents who are divorced: 5.3% of males, 9.4% of females
  • Percentage of income spent on housing: 17.7%

Cary is only about 12 miles west of Raleigh, but as you can see from where it lands on our list, it ranks much higher on the happiness scale. From a financial perspective, the 146,000 people have really hit the jackpot, pulling down the highest median income and spending the lowest percentage on housing. Divorce and violent crime are pretty rare. The trip to work isn't a major drain on your time, and there are a good number of early birds on the roads before dawn. Based on how it measures up, we think that living in Cary is sure to have you grinning from ear to ear.

Did You Know: The USA Baseball National Training Complex is located in Cary.


Disappointed that your hometown didn't make the list? With so many outstanding places to choose from, it was a real challenge for us to limit our choices to just 10. We thought we'd give you a peek at some of the other cities that came close to making the cut:

The Top 15 Happiest Cities in North Carolina

RankCityPeople per Restaurants and BarsViolent Crime OddsAverage Commute Time% Leaving Before 5amMedian Household Income% Male Divorce1% Female Divorce1Income Spent on Housing
1Cary488.91 in 1,226.222.21.4%$91,3495.3%9.4%17.7%
2Chapel Hill293.61 in 673.419.40.4%$59,7933.8%5.9%22.6%
3Apex561.41 in 1,184.423.21.0%$89,3987.1%10.2%19.7%
4Matthews350.01 in 600.325.63.1%$68,6087.5%10.2%22.2%
5Mooresville242.41 in 344.322.63.2%$53,0666.4%11.1%24.5%
6Sanford372.61 in 327.3213.2%$40,8059.0%10.7%22%
7Huntersville666.81 in 570.925.81.3%$85,6607.4%8.5%20.5%
8Holly Springs1,413.91 in 1,837.128.71.7%$89,1876.5%10.7%20.4%
9Garner411.31 in 413.125.62.7%$61,7057.8%12.8%22%
10Raleigh460.01 in 236.321.42.2%$53,6997.7%12.4%23.6%
11Fayetteville497.81 in 173.719.95.5%$44,75610.1%15.9%24.9%
12Greenville382.61 in 190.917.13.2%$34,3996.8%10.0%27.6%
13Wake Forest658.71 in 640.429.21.8%$74,2217.9%8.6%22.8%
14High Point447.81 in 192.120.73.1%$44,3679.2%12.4%24.2%
15Goldsboro272.41 in 118.917.54.4%$35,33810.1%14.5%24.7%

1Treated as one combined metric for ranking purposes (at a 50:50 male to female ratio).

Rebecca Lake is a journalist at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Rebecca Lake at rebecca@creditdonkey.com. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for our latest posts.

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