In a new ranking of the “happiest cities in America,” Men’s Health magazine named Raleigh as the third happiest city in the nation

Durham wasn’t too far behind at number 12. No other North Carolina city placed in the Top 25.

Men’s Health used a smorgasbord of factors for its list: predictive Twitter language, rates of depression, community engagement, income inequality, home ownership rates, traffic, and even sleep stats, among others. It relied on data from sources like the American Fitness Index, the Trust for Public Land, and the World Well-Being Project. But while it says the magazine used survey information, it’s entirely unclear how many people were actually asked for input. 

We don’t have any insight into Durham’s ranking—after the Top 10, the magazine stopped elaborating on its choices—but we do have a sense of why Raleigh scored so well: mental health.

“Perhaps that’s due to a state-wide Adult Mental Health Services commitment, which includes ‘assertive community treatment,'” the article says, without much elaboration. 

Okay sure, but that’s a statewide program, as the quote itself admits before linking to the N.C. Department of Health & Human Services’ website.

Look, I love the Triangle, and consider myself fortunate to live here. It’s my chosen home. I’m happy to see Raleigh representing. But while the article is co-authored by the magazine’s research chief and a fellow researcher, the list’s criteria still look pretty fuzzy from where I’m sitting.

After all, the World Wellbeing Project puts Durham County at #78 out of 3,235 in the nation. Wake is pretty high up there too, but at #135, it’s well behind the Bull City and its exurbs. (Mecklenburg is slightly higher than Wake at 132, while Orange County comes in at 338.)

Lincoln, Nebraska took first place on the Men’s Health list, and Madison, Wisconsin was the only other city to outrank Raleigh. But the World Wellbeing Project—one of the magazine’s benchmarks—puts Lincoln’s Lancaster County down at number 477, and Madison’s Dane County is barely ahead at 440. Obviously this one just one measurement, but without more clarity, it feels a little like Raleigh and Durham are getting the shaft here.

Lincoln scored high across the board, Men’s Health wrote, noting that it performed particularly well thanks to its public parks. Lincoln has 132 parks, the authors write, which is admittedly a lot more than the  68 parks in similarly sized Durham. But if you’re giving out points for parks, we should note that Raleigh brags more than 200.

We don’t put a lot of stock in lists like this—they often feel arbitrary and don’t seem grounded in our lived experiences. Take, for example, Travel + Leisure‘s new list of 50 best places to travel in 2021. Ignoring the fact that we shouldn’t really be traveling anywhere for leisure right now, it seems a little absurd that the Triangle comes in at number 30, just behind Nashville, New Orleans, and New York City. The ranking, which came out earlier this month, lumps all of the country’s national parks into one item, and omits any other mention of the Old North State save for this Triangle item.

We’re grateful that Brooklyn-based Travel + Leisure Senior Editor Lila Battis acknowledges that “Raleigh-Durham is an airport, not a city,” putting this list leagues above countless others that didn’t bother to look at a map. And the Triangle’s entry calls out many of our region’s gems.

But are we really to believe that Galena, Illinois (#16) is a better destination than the more obvious (yet more worthy) New Orleans or New York (#28 and #29, respectively)? Is it just edgier to include, and better for generating media buzz? And why are the entire states of Wyoming, Delaware, and Rhode Island on the list alongside much more precise destinations like Astoria, Oregon (ranked #2, and with a population of 10,000)? It all feels a little contrived.

It’s nice to receive outside recognition, maybe, but the Triangle is confident—and happy?—enough that we don’t need it. Can you really quantify happiness?

Still, I guess it’s nice that Men’s Health offered us a chance to gloat (that’s a form of happiness, is it not?) over our fellow North Carolinians. Greensboro ranked 30th happy city in America, somehow putting it just ahead of Honolulu, Hawaii yet behind Plano, Texas. Charlotte placed a few clicks down further still at 33, while Winston-Salem didn’t make an appearance until shortly before the 50th slot. At least the Camel City didn’t fall in the bottom half of the list or down by Baton Rouge, Louisiana (#99) or Detroit, Michigan (#100).

Asheville, Wilmington, and other North Carolina metros were too small to make the grade—the magazine only looked at the 100 biggest cities in the country. Charleston, the only South Carolina city to be ranked, took home number 18. Maybe the Triangle can take some satisfaction in that as well.

Triangle residents often seem to enjoy pretending the Triad doesn’t exist (I say as someone who lived in Greensboro for 12 years), while Charlotte is sometimes seen as soulless and robotic. If either outranked us on the Happiness Index, we’d use it as a reason to dismiss the authors as carpetbagging morons who didn’t know the first thing about our piney state. Seeing the Oak City so far ahead might rankle some Durhamites, but hey—let’s just laugh it off.

Do you really want to live in first-ranked Lincoln, Nebraska, anyway?

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