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In search of happiness

NBC's Dawn Fratangelo asks the man known as Dr. Happiness, University of Illinois professor Ed Diener, what the secret to happiness is, and if everyone is capable of achieving it.

Something somewhere is bound to make you smile, to trigger a happy thought, be it money, puppies, chocolate, the beach. But what's the secret to happiness? And are some more likely to possess it than others?

We asked the man known as Dr. Happiness — University of Illinois professor Ed Diener.

"There's a genetic influence on happiness," Diener says. "That means that our genes influence to some degree how happy we are. But also, our attitudes, our social relationships, what happens to us in life matters a lot too."

Diener is the leading researcher on the subject. He says there are three main keys to happiness, the most influential being relationships.

Happy people are more likely to get married. And once they are, they're happier than unmarried folks. But any meaningful connection can matter.

"People who are in committed relationships, people who are friends, nuns who never get married but have lots of friends, all these individuals can also be happy," Diener says.

Those who lose a spouse or partner or those who lose their jobs can experience the biggest change in happiness.

Besides relationships, other important factors include goals and ideas — that feeling of inspiration you get when a light bulb goes on. But it can be fleeting. That's why one law firm created a "happiness committee" — a secret group of employees who give out gifts and other perks to brighten the workday.

"People need something to reward them and to recognize what they're doing, and we hope that by doing these small gestures we're contributing to that, says Chris Wilson with Perkins Coie in Chicago.

The environment is also an influence — like a laughing class — the premise is laughter. No jokes, no alcohol, just belly laughs. It's contagious, and it certainly makes those who participate appear to be happy.

But is this just faking it?

"There is this saying that says, 'If you want to be happy, act happy,'" Diener says.

He says most everyone wants happiness — it ranks above money and health among college students. The key is finding the things that make you happy and keep you that way.