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The pursuit of happiness

Happiness is everywhere.

In emoticons punctuating the ends of social media sentences. :)

In radio songs and TV shows, from throwback Bobby McFarren singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to Pharrell Williams belting out “Happy” at the Oscars.

It’s even in our country’s Declaration of Independence, proclaiming that every citizen has the right to the “pursuit of happiness.”

So why are so many of us unhappy?

The question so perplexed psychologists in the past decade that several of them banded together to form the field of positive psychology – the study of how to make people happier and more fulfilled.

Carin Rockind, a New York City-based life coach who trained at the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program, drew a crowd of about a dozen women when she spoke about happiness and purpose at a South End shoe store recently.

Rockind, 39, says she was unhappy and lacked fulfillment more than a decade ago. So she left her marriage and lucrative job in the financial sector, seeking something more. She felt called to mentor others, and attended the University of Pennsylvania program. Now, she gives talks to employees at Fortune 500 companies about finding purpose in the workplace, as well as coaching individuals worldwide.

Rockind, along with Charlotte-based life coach Mary Buchan, had advice for those seeking more happiness and fulfillment day to day.

HAVING enough money to live comfortably is essential to happiness, but realize that wealth is never the key to feeling fulfilled.

Poverty makes people feel bogged down in nearly every facet of life, Rockind says. But for those who are not in poverty, attaining the next pay bump or reaching the next financial goal – a bigger house, a nicer car, a designer handbag – creates a feeling of happiness that quickly evaporates.

There are conflicting studies on how much effect wealth has on happiness. A 2013 study by University of Michigan professors found that people in richer countries as a whole are happier than in poorer countries, and that richer people are happier than poorer people within a given country.

Many behavioral experts say it’s important to pay attention to what’s termed the “hedonic treadmill,” which describes how we adapt to bumps up in the improvement of our circumstances, but naturally grow to expect more.

“Once we achieve the next monetary goal, you achieve happiness for a time, and then it is gone,” Rockind says. Personal happiness is akin to a thermostat. Bumps in fortune, like monetary gains, or being in a new relationship, may move our “happy” needle forward for a time, but we tend to revert back to our set level of happiness.

ACCEPT that you may have been born with pessimistic tendencies, but be mindful of your ability to retrain your brain to look on the bright side.

Innately, the brain is wired to respond more strongly to negative emotions than positive. This “negativity bias” was critical to the survival of our ancestors, who needed to be sensitive to perceived threats, Rockind says.

While we still need to keep our guards up, those who find they naturally approach situations and people expecting trouble can retrain themselves to find optimism in adversity, Rockind says.

“Learned optimism,” a technique coined by positive psychologist Martin Seligman, one of Rockind’s mentors, teaches people to see setbacks as “temporary, isolated and not personal,” rather than “permanent, pervasive and personal.”

Researchers say optimists tend to be higher achievers and have better overall health.

PURSUE activities that motivate you. Sounds simple, but both Rockind and Buchan say many people lack hobbies or interests that energize and enrich their lives.

Both coaches say they ask their clients to recall what they loved to do as children and to think of a time when they were doing something they loved, whether it was performing in the school musical or fixing an old car.

“Take some time to dig down deep and find what you love. Often, it’s like the motivators are hidden,” says Buchan, who specializes in helping people reinvent their lives in midlife. “Sometimes, you’re so busy surviving in life that you forget what you’re into.”

Rediscovering a lost joy, like creating music or working with one’s hands, can often bring a kind of happiness and satisfaction that spills over to other areas, not just making someone happy in the moment, Buchan says.

Discovering what brings bliss can in some cases lead to a career shift – realizing that you love to work with young children may motivate you to switch from an office job to a teaching position – but it doesn’t have to, Buchan says.

PRACTICE good self-care, taking time to reflect by journaling and expressing gratitude each day. Rockind says she has clients ask themselves three questions daily: What am I most excited about today? What am I proud of? What am I grateful for?

Buchan, a registered nurse, urges her clients to take stock of their diet, exercise habits and overall health. Illness can be an underlying cause of unhappiness. Even just fatigue and not getting enough sleep can lead to feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

And be on the lookout for negative self-talk, Buchan says. Having a negative inner narrator makes it hard to greet each day with happiness and optimism. “What kinds of things are you saying to yourself?” Buchan asks.

YEARN for happiness, but understand what it is and what it isn’t.

“Sometimes people need help understanding what happiness is,” Rockind says, “and it isn’t that ecstatic joy all the time.”

Being a happy person doesn’t mean being unaffected by life’s ups and downs, or being immune to rough days and bad moods.

“It’s deeper than that,” Rockind says. “It’s living a pleasurable life, an engaged life and a meaningful life.”