The lighter side of real estate

These Are The 10 Happiest Mid-Sized Cities In America

How do you measure a city’s happiness? We came up with a way and used it to rank the most contented mid-sized places in the nation.

Randy Nelson

Content Manager

119 articles, 53 comments

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What makes you happy? Probably a million different things; some large, some small. Where you live is one of these things–one of the biggest, we reckon. What is it, though, that makes your town a happy place? What about it actually makes people happy? That, dear Movoto Real Estate blog readers, is what’s known as a Big Question (worthy of proper capitalization).

As it turns out, we’re not alone in wondering such things. In fact, an author by the name of Richard Florida delved into this question in his book “Who’s Your City?”. In it, Florida asks the aforementioned question and attempts to answer it using two of our very favorite things: research and data. Intrigued, we decided to put some of what he proposed to the test by using the criteria to rank the happiest mid-sized cities in the country.

After figuring out how to translate Florida’s findings into measurable criteria and doing our own research, we concluded that Rochester, MN is America’s “happy place,” at least within a specific population size. In fact, 10 places we researched stood out as particularly happy. They are:

1. Rochester, MN
2. Arvada, CO
3. Naperville, IL
4. Cary, NC
5. Richardson, TX
6. Olathe, KS
7. Overland Park, KS
8. Bellevue, WA
9. Thousand Oaks, CA
10. McKinney, TX

What make Rochester rock when it comes to inducing happy thoughts? Should Thousand Oaks really be renamed “Thousand Smiles?”  Queue up your laugh track because we’re about to tell you. First up, however, is our methodology.

How To Measure A City’s Happiness

In his book, Richard Florida discusses his conclusions following research into what makes cities happy places, having looked at common sense ideas like “the more money people make, the happier they are” and less common concepts such as correlations between marital status and happiness. Piggybacking on his research, we were able to adapt it into the following seven criteria, one of which is actually comprised of three sub-factors:

  • Stress factors (high unemployment, long commutes, high cost of living)
  • Personal safety (violent crimes)
  • Residents making greater than $25,000/year
  • Married residents
  • Home ownership
  • Residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Convenience of amenities

In his research, Florida found that only 43 percent of people making less than $25,000 a year reported being happy with their city. On the other hand, 69 percent of married residents and 73 percent of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher reported they were. So, using data from the U.S. Census, we were able to focus in on those groups within each city and measure how much of the population they comprised.

The particular stress factors we looked at were also found to correlate to a city’s happiness, as were higher home ownership, personal safety, and convenience in the sense of amenities being easily accessible, which is where the website came in.

We applied these criteria to 200 mid-sized cities, which we defined as those ranked 101 through 300 in terms of population size in the U.S. according to the Census Bureau. Each city was given a score of one to 200 in the individual criteria, with one being the best, after which we averaged these scores into one aggregate, which we call our Big Deal Score. The lowest aggregate score was crowned the winner, in this case Rochester, MN.

If you’re interested in knowing how each of our top 10 cities fared across the seven criteria, we’d be happy to tell you. If you don’t see your city in the top 10, there’s still a chance it made our top 50, which you can find at the end of this article. Now, onto the absolute happiest habitats in the nation.

1. Rochester, MN

Rochester, MN

Source: Olive Juice Studio

Are you smiling as you read this? Then chances are you live in our happiest mid-sized city, Rochester (Minnesota, not New York. According to our findings, Rochester made it to the top of our list thanks to its relatively stress-free living.

Rochester ranked 13th overall in terms of having low stress factors, which translates into a cost of living 4 percent below the national average, a commute time of just seven minutes on average, and a low 4.3 unemployment rate.

In terms of demographic reasons to be happy, only 17 percent of Rochester residents make less than $25,000 per year and 55 percent of the people who live there are married (so there are plenty of smiling couples there).

2. Arvada, CO

Arvada, CO

Source: Flickr user DigHazuse

Convenience is key to Arvada’s happiness. With a walk score of 85, this town, located outside of Denver, CO, is the fifth most convenient overall and has the most accessible amenities of any place in our top 10.

Arvada also solicits smiles from residents with its high marks in safety (18th overall) and home ownership (70 percent are owner-occupied, placing it 10th overall for that criterion). Its residents could be more stress-free, however; the city ranked 99th for low stress factors, with a cost of living just one percent shy of the national average, a 29-minute average commute, and 7.3 percent unemployment rate.

3. Naperville, IL

Naperville, IL

Source: Flickr user akeg

It’s been said that money can’t buy happiness. The residents of Naperville might disagree with that statement. Not only did the city post a second-placed ranking in terms of income with only 6 percent of households making less than $25,000 a year, but the city has a median household income of $101,911, nearly twice the national average.

Naperville also did extremely well when it came to safety, tying for first place overall with the next city we’re going to talk about, Cary, NC, having just 79 violent crimes in 2012 per 100,000 residents.

4. Cary, NC

Cary, NC

Source: Flickr user Dougtone

Cary just recently appeared on our ranking of the safest mid-sized cities in America, so it’s of little (or no) surprise the city did exceptionally well when it comes to safety. As we said above, Cary shares its first-place ranking in safety with Naperville at just 79 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.

Are there other reasons for Cary residents to do the happy dance? You bet. This city placed fourth overall in terms of income, with only 8 percent of its population making a median household income of less than $25,000 annually. It also made the single-digit rankings overall for education, with 64 percent of its residents sporting a bachelor’s degree or higher.

All this is great and all, but what kept the great city from cracking the top three? Convenience. Cary was ranked 177th overall in this category with a walk score of just 25 out of 100. In other words, this is a driving city.

5. Richardson, TX

Richardson, TX

Source: City of Richardson

Everything, they say, is bigger in Texas. We assume that also goes for the smiles, and in Richardson they must be grinning from ear to ear right about now. Home to the University of Texas, this Dallas suburb has clearly retained a well-educated populace, as it placed 19th overall for attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher with 50 percent of its residents holding that distinction.

Its residents must have also learned that crime doesn’t pay, as the city ranked 28th overall for personal safety reporting just 171 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.

Last, but not least, in terms of convenience, Richardson was second-best out of our top 10 cities, but still a ways behind Arvada with a walk score of 40, earning it a spot at 88th overall for easily accessible amenities.

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6. Olathe, KS

Olathe, KS

Olathe proves that they don’t just grow corn in Kansas–they grow happiness. Olathe in particular seems to grow wealth and relationships, as the city placed 11th and 17th overall for income above $25,000 and percentage of married residents, respectively.

For the former criterion, a mere 10 percent of households make less than our “happy threshold” of median income annually, while for the latter a full 59 percent of people there live in holy (and hopefully happy) matrimony.

Nonetheless, things drop off when it comes to education and personal safety, but only slightly. With 178 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, Olathe managed a 30th-place finish for our safety criterion, and an even 45 percent of folks there have at least a bachelor’s degree, which resulted in a 25th-place ranking for education.

7. Overland Park, KS

Overland Park, KS

Source: Flickr user periwinklekog

Kansas is known as “The Sunflower State,” but in the case of Overland Park, it would seem that money grows on trees. Well, there’s at least enough of it to go around that only 9 percent of households there make less than $25,000 a year, a figure good enough to earn Overland Park eighth place in our income category overall.

In what other areas did Overland overachieve? Education and safety.  About 57 percent of the city’s residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree, for which Overland Park placed 12th in education. As for safety, Overland placed 25th overall when compared to all the cities on our list.

8. Bellevue, WA

Bellvue, WA

Source: Flickr user Anupam_ts

The Carpenters once sang “rainy days and Mondays always get me down,” and you’d think that, at least in terms of sogginess, a city in Washington would have to rate as pretty depressing by ‘70s songwriter standards. As it turns out, though, Bellevue would put a smile on Karen’s face–rain or shine.

Education and safety were the two biggest bright spots when we looked at this Pacific Northwest town. That’s because 62 percent of its residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree, placing it at sixth overall in that regard, and with just 113 violent crimes per 100,000 residents it earned 10th place for personal safety.

9. Thousand Oaks, CA

Thousand Oaks, CA

Source: City of Thousand Oaks

Like Cary, NC, Thousand Oaks was also named one of our safest mid-sized cities recently, but that’s not the only reason its residents are smiling. In addition to that distinction, which earned it an eighth-place finish on this list in terms of safety, it also placed sixth overall for income (with 9 percent of households making under $25,000 a year) and ninth overall for home ownership (more than 70 percent of its houses are owner-occupied).

As Californians, we can tell you that stress factors are sometimes high here, so we weren’t really surprised by Thousand Oak’s 133rd-place finish there. In fact, the city was nearly the worst (194th) when it came to cost of living, where it stands at 43 points above the national average. Then, despite being part of the endless Southern Californian sprawl, it placed 140th for convenience, with a walk score of 32 out of 100.

10. McKinney, TX

McKinney, TX

Source: Flickr user USDAgov

We end our tour of America’s happiest mid-sized cities in the Lone Star State, where smiles certainly aren’t an endangered species–especially not in McKinney. Maybe it has something to do with all that wedded bliss in the air? That wouldn’t be surprising considering more people in McKinney are married than in any other place on our top 10 list: 63 percent, resulting in an eighth place overall rank for marriage.

When it comes to our other happiness factors, McKinney did well overall. It placed 15th for income with 10 percent of its households making below $25,000 annually. It was 21st for home ownership (66 percent of its houses are owner-occupied), 24th for education (46 percent of its people have at least a bachelor’s degree), and 32nd for safety.

Where did McKinney falter? It placed 60th for stress factors, a number we attribute largely to its 30-minute average commute and cost of living just six percent below the national average. Finally, McKinney residents aren’t getting around on foot. The city has a WalkScore of 23, giving it a rank of 187 for this criterion.

Shiny Happy People

We can’t blame you for wearing a grin if you live in any of these places; just don’t let it turn to a smug one when we tell you about the places where there are plenty of frowns to go around. Based on our research and criteria, it turns out that Hartford, CT is the unhappiest mid-sized city in the nation, placing dead last for marriage and home ownership.

If you’re looking for suggestions on what to do better, Hartford, there’s no one better to ask than the people of Rochester, MN–their town might have just what you need to turn your frown upside-down.

(click to enlarge table)

Happiest Mid-Sized Cities In America

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posted on: February 12, 2014
49,141 views, 9 comments


  1. ange

    I live in Rochester and love it here! I moved from a smaller town in central Wisconsin and we chose Rochester for it’s size, friendly people, great amenities and real estate prices. It really is a great place to live and the bonus, Minneapolis is only a little over an hour away if you need a big city thrill once in a while.

  2. MamaBear

    I also live in Rochester and in my experience, nobody here seems truly happy. Most everyone I know is certainly deeply unhappy but they hide it well. They all live in cookie cutter McMansions, have the latest smart phones, drive late-model vehicles and flit from Thirty One parties to Norwex parties to wine-tasting parties. They cart their children around in their new minivans to a gazillion sporting, extra-curricular, and charity evens, all to fit in with the Mayo crowd. Everybody seems too busy trying to “keep up with the Joneses” here. People in Rochester are not happy. They are brainwashed to be good little consumers of whatever is being sold to them. I guess ignorance is bliss in some respects.

  3. MNtravel

    So funny! I just escaped the hell hole that is Rochester, MN! Wow. There is nothing there – no good restaurants, no nice hotels, no diversity, no culture, very small art scene, no touring shows because there is no venue. If you don’t work for the Mayo Clinic you are an outsider. The drive to Minneapolis is 90 minutes without traffic which is just far enough away to not allow you to enjoy it for a night out. I do know people who feel they are happy there, but they are not people interested in doing anything cultural. If you want to have a family and not be bothered by the rest of the world, never go out for dinner, see a show, etc..then Rochester may be nice. If you have any interests out there besides those, then stay away!

    • k in response to MNtravel

      Okay how is Rochester not diverse? Have you seen all of the different cultures we have or are you living under a rock?

  4. Jonesy

    I grew up in Rochester and moved away 10 years ago at the age of 23. Sure, the city is growing and new business are opening, but it’s still the same old Rochester. “Soul-less” would be a great word to describe Rochester. It’s really just a suburb without a city, urban sprawl at its worst.

    I’m sure for those fortunate enough to find a job at the one and only employer in town, Mayo, then it’s a tolerable place to live, but if you can’t find work there, be prepared to live on minimum wage working in retail.

  5. Dana

    Arvada rocks!

  6. Rina

    I grew up in Naperville, but after visiting it a few times during my college years, I stopped going back. Napes is insanely stifling. There are almost no post-high school adults (without children) living there because the education system churned out a bunch of college-worthy robots who all left for good. Thus, it is a boring place that leaves you no room to grow after you reach a certain point. Sure, if you’re a child or an old person, or someone whose livelihood depends on their well-being, it’s a “nice” town. But if you’re not one of the above people, and you aren’t constantly traveling, then you’re likely complacent with your stagnant routine. Try doing “something new,” and you’ll quickly reach a dead end. I speak from experience.

  7. Katie

    I live in Richardson and really like it here. As a suburb of Dallas, we have the convenience without the size. And I can guarantee that we are happier than Dallasites are! Just an FYI, the main University of Texas campus is in Austin, TX, Richardson is home to University of Texas at Dallas, a much smaller campus. A surprise to me was that only 50% of us have college degrees since we are the Technology Corridor of North Texas. But then again, we have Plano right above us, which appears not to be a happy city at all.

  8. sue

    yes rochester has no character -drive or ambition– if you find something better move


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