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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.

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.

Fido beats out Facebook.

A relationship with a pet was found to be a strong indicator of happiness, particularly among older women and singles. At the bottom of the list: our virtual relationships. Connecting with friends or family on a social media site like Facebook came in 37th out of 38 activities important to happiness.

Money is no guarantee of happiness.

Feeling happy increases with income, and conversely, lack of resources is tied to unhappiness. Still, overall, less than a third of people said that money made them happy.

Happiness is in your own hands.

Most people feel they have control over their own personal happiness — and that sense of control increases with age. What’s more, people who feel in control are clearly happier — reporting that they are more than twice as happy as those who think that happiness is out of their control.