What makes people happy?

Which route will make you happiest?
Which route will make you happiest?

Americans are proud to claim certain inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's interesting to note that the Founding Fathers, in all their wisdom, didn't claim happiness as a right, only its pursuit. Since those three concepts were linked in 1776, public health has improved and our freedom to live life as we see fit has increased. The pursuit of happiness continues, largely because the object of our pursuit is so much more elusive than life or liberty.

We all want happiness, but finding it isn't the easiest venture. Many of us conceive of it as the end-product of material wealth, career goals and family harmony. With that in mind, we seek out the things we believe will deliver it: better cars, nicer houses and bigger paychecks. Others of us work to put together a large network of friends or find a spouse.

When we're not happy with what we have, we believe we'll be happier when we get what we want. And we're right, we will be happier -- for a while. The problem is that once you get a large house with a swimming pool or get that promotion you've been chasing, you gradually get used to it. In fact, even when we're negatively affected by events, our immediate dissatisfaction also gradually fades, and in time we return to our pre-existing state of happiness (or unhappiness, whichever the case may be). Lottery winners and people who have been paralyzed report similar levels of happiness one year after the life-changing event. The initial change from the status quo produces short-term happiness or unhappiness, but as that becomes the day-to-day norm, happiness seems to level out [source: Wargo].

So what does make us happy? Is it a vibrant social life? Hearing the pitter-patter of little feet? Having a healthy lifestyle? Research has uncovered some surprising facts about what makes us happy, as well as the effect that happiness has on our lives.