Life is Beautiful: For most Americans, personal relationships come first.

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Would you rather hit the lottery or have great friends? The latter may make you happier, according to a recent study by Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch. The survey found that for most of us, the state of personal relationships with partners, family, friends, and community is the most important element contributing to our overall sense of well-being.

The research company surveyed 2,298 adults and asked them to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the quality of five aspects of their lives: Relationships, health, personal fulfillment (defined as personal growth and job satisfaction), financial status, and leisure activity. They were then asked to rate the overall quality of their lives. Using statistical data analysis, TNS derived the "percent impact" that each factor exerted on the overall perception of respondents' quality of life.

Relationships came out on top with a 28 percent impact on quality of life, followed by health (22 percent), personal fulfillment (22 percent), financial status (16 percent), and leisure activities (13 percent). The findings surprised Howard Barich, senior vice-president for marketing at TNS, who had predicted that financial concerns would prevail. "It turns out people voted with their hearts," he says.

Perhaps even more unexpected is that men place more emphasis on relationships than women, contradicting long-held stereotypes. Among men, relationships are the most important factor, with a 29 percent influence, whereas for women it's the secondary concern, at 25 percent. Health is the most important issue for women, with a 27 percent impact, while for men this factor comes in at 17 percent.

Sue Northey, who has conducted similar consumer research at Milwaukee-based ad agency Cramer-Krasselt believes these findings could reflect the large percentage of moms who now work. "Men are more involved in raising children, and this may make them more relationship-oriented," offers Northey. "And of course they hate seeing doctors."

The study also found that as we age, and are presumably more comfortable with our accomplishments, personal fulfillment and job satisfaction decrease in importance and leisure time becomes more of a priority. For the 45-and-under set, personal growth and career have a 25 percent impact, while leisure activity has only a 9 percent impact. For those over 45, these figures shift to 18 percent for personal fulfillment and 16 percent for leisure.

Regional differences arise as well. True to the West's active-lifestyle image, health is uppermost in the minds of individuals living in this region of the U.S., with a 35 percent influence - much more so than in the Northeast, Midwest, and South, with impacts of 20 percent, 21 percent, and 22 percent, respectively. Health is also of primary importance to lower-income earners, who may have lower rates of health insurance coverage. Those with annual household incomes below $50,000 attribute a 28 percent impact to this concern, ahead of relationships at 27 percent.

One group that places an inordinate emphasis on financial status are those who are not employed - it has a 20 percent impact on their quality of life versus a 13 percent impact for those who work part- or full-time. This result is a reflection of retirees' attentiveness to their nest eggs, according to Barich. Or it's all those stay-at-home spouses anxiously waiting to win the lottery.

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