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Lynda Wallace, author of "A Short Course in Happiness: Practical Steps to a Happier Life," says the debate over happiness is often confused, and that dispelling the myths surrounding the mental state is the first step toward achieving it.

What makes us happy?

One of the most reliable ways to answer that question is to study what very happy people have in common. Turns out there are four things very happy people do that make the difference. I call them the Four Elements of Happiness, and we can all take concrete steps to apply them in our own lives.

Focus on the positive • Consciously choose to appreciate and seek out the good things in life, and not get too caught up with complaints and worries.

Cope effectively with the negative • Give ourselves permission to feel sad, angry or lonely, while retaining the confidence that things will get better.

Develop strong, trusting relationships • And put those relationships at the center of our lives.

Pursue meaningful goals • Make them in synch with our most important priorities and values.

What are some misperceptions?

Myth No 1 • Happiness Is About Getting the Big Things Right. It's natural to think that if we were suddenly rich, beautiful and living on the beach somewhere, we'd be happy. Turns out that type of good fortune has a surprisingly small impact on happiness. Unless we're in truly intolerable situations, we can have a much bigger impact on our happiness by cultivating positive emotional outlooks and habits than we can by changing the "big things," such as where we live, how we look and even how much we earn.

Myth No 2 • I'll Be Happy When I Achieve My Goals. I think we've all had the experience of working hard to achieve a goal, sure that its accomplishment would make us happy forever — or at least for a very long time — then wondering why the happiness didn't last. Most of us can think of a time when we failed to achieve a long-sought ambition and felt as if we'd never recover from the disappointment, only to discover before too long that the failure didn't ruin our happiness after all, and may have even had unexpected benefits. Committed goal pursuit is one of the keys to a happy life. But it turns out that the ultimate achievement or disappointment isn't the most important thing. Most of the impact that our goals have on our well-being comes while we're making progress toward them, not after we achieve them. So it's important that we choose goals that we'll enjoy pursuing, and that contribute to our sense of purpose and meaning.

Where do we start?

Certain actions and habits are almost guaranteed to make us happier. Actively nurturing our relationships, taking time to feel and express our gratitude for the good things in our lives, making it a priority to spend time doing things we enjoy with people we love, engaging in meaningful work (whether as an employee, a parent, or a volunteer), getting regular exercise, and making progress toward deeply felt goals and ambitions — any or all of these steps can add up to have an enormous impact on our happiness and well-being. Lynda Wallace, coach, author