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What Makes People Happy?

AARP study shows that friends, family and good health are key

Some people say you can’t measure happiness, but, it turns out, you can: A new AARP poll released today looks at how happy American adults feel — and what factors contribute to their sense of contentment.

The good news: The vast majority of us — 68 percent — say we’re happy.

The OK news: About half of us report being just "somewhat happy," compared with 19 percent who say they are "very happy."

The bad news: Overall levels of happiness seem to be on the decline when compared with historical data, a likely result of the current economy.

Those findings come from an AARP survey, conducted by Heart + Mind Strategies, of 4,000 Americans between the ages of 35 and 80. Other key conclusions include:

Your early 50s are a low point, but it gets better.

The percentage of people who say they are very happy follows a U-shaped curve by age. Those between ages 50 and 55 are the least likely to say they are very happy (16 percent). Researchers say that’s likely because of the pressures people feel at this life stage when they’re sandwiched between paying for college and caring for aging parents. By the time people reach their late 60s, happiness reaches a high point: 24 percent consider themselves very happy.

Factors such as relationships, money, and goals impact happiness according to a new survey

Most people feel they have control over their own personal happiness. — Photo by Loubie Lou/Getty Images

Feeling healthy? Then you’re probably happy.

Not surprisingly, the study found that one of the strongest connections to happiness is health. Most people who say they’re in poor or terrible health are “not too happy,” while those who report being in tip-top shape are the most likely to be “very happy.”

Family and friends matter most.

Researchers looked at what in particular makes people happy and found that family and other relationships are most important, by far. The strongest two factors, which 72 percent of respondents said contributed “a lot” to their personal happiness, were “watching children, grandchildren or a close relative succeed in what they want to do” and “kissing or hugging someone you love.” To compare, only about half find that “listening to music you enjoy” or “making progress on your personal goals” adds to their well-being.

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Money maven Jean Chatzky has some advice about decision-making. One of her "money rules" is that the more time you spend agonizing over a money decision, the less happy you'll be. Often, "good enough" is best.

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