Turns out the real answer is quite different. Spending time with family was the top answer to that open-ended question, according to an extensive survey — more than 100 questions asked of 1,280 people ages 13-24 — conducted by The Associated Press and MTV on the nature of happiness among America's young people.
Next was spending time with friends, followed by time with a significant other. And even better for parents: Nearly three-quarters of young people say their relationship with their parents makes them happy.
"They're my foundation," says Kristiana St. John, 17, a high-school student from Queens in New York. "My mom tells me that even if I do something stupid, she's still going to love me no matter what. Just knowing that makes me feel very happy and blessed."
Other results are more disconcerting. While most young people are happy overall with the way their lives are going, there are racial differences: the poll shows whites to be happier, across economic categories, than blacks and Hispanics. A lot of young people feel stress, particularly those from the middle class, and females more than males.
You might think money would be clearly tied to a general sense of happiness. But almost no one said "money" when asked what makes them happy, though people with the highest family incomes are generally happier with life. However, having highly educated parents is a stronger predictor of happiness than income.
And sex? Yes, we were getting to that. Being sexually active actually leads to less happiness among 13-17 year olds, according to the survey. If you're 18 to 24, sex might lead to more happiness in the moment, but not in general.
From the body to the soul: Close to half say religion and spirituality are very important. And more than half say they believe there is a higher power that has an influence over things that make them happy. Beyond religion, simply belonging to an organized religious group makes people happier.
And parents, here's some more for you: Most young people in school say it makes them happy. Overwhelmingly, young people think marriage would make them happy and want to be married some day. Most also want to have kids.
Finally, when asked to name their heroes, nearly half of respondents mentioned one or both of their parents. The winner, by a nose: Mom.
HAPPINESS IS ...
"...two kinds of ice cream," according to the song from "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." John Lennon, more darkly, described it as a warm gun. A much more typical description comes from Stacy Rosales, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, who calls it "just a general stress-free feeling where I'm not really worried about anything. That makes me happy."
For Chad Fiedler, 17, it's "just waking up in the morning and looking forward to what I'm going to be doing that day." And for Esohe Roland, a 14 year old from Nashville, it's "playing trumpet in my school band."
However you express, define or feel it, 65 percent of those surveyed say they're happy with the way things are going for them right now.
WE ARE FAMILY:
When asked what one thing makes them most happy, 20 percent mentioned spending time with family more than anything else. About three-quarters — 73 percent — said their relationship with their parents makes them happy. After family, it was relationships with friends that people mentioned most.
"It's good news to hear young people being realistic about what really makes them happy," says psychologist Jean Twenge, author of "Generation Me" and a professor at San Diego State University. "Research has shown us that relationships are the single greatest source of happiness."
Also confirming existing research, Twenge says, is the finding that children of divorced parents are somewhat less likely to be happy. Among 13-17 year olds, 64 percent of those with parents still together said they wake up happy, compared to 47 percent of those with divorced parents.
FIRST COMES LOVE, THEN COMES...:
Overall, romantic relationships are a source of happiness, but being in one doesn't necessarily lead to greater happiness with life in general.