Believe it or not, we were doing pretty well as a nation at the start of last year.
At least 49 percent of us believed we were "thriving" in our lives, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily poll tracking the happiness of American adults.
But enter the economic crisis. We have job losses, pay cuts and foreclosures, and the collective feeling that we were doing "pretty well" goes down.
In November and December of 2008, only 38 percent of Americans said they were "thriving," compared to 58 percent who said they were "struggling." That represents about 22 million people who downgraded their perception of happiness from the start of the year.
Ask any therapist, coach or counselor and they will tell you happiness is critical to our well-being. Studies show there is a link between happiness and better marriages, better health and better incomes. Our nation is even founded on the principle of happiness.
But is it possible to participate in the "pursuit of happiness" when the future may seem bleak?
Yes, says Ed Diener, one of the foremost researchers on happiness and president of the International Positive Psychology Association, or IPPA.
"The economic crisis might indeed harm our happiness, but it is important to realize that we will probably adapt more, and more quickly, than we might predict," Diener said in a recent address to the IPPA.
He believes one key to greater happiness is for people to change their perspective and attitude. So, instead of focusing on the "doom and gloom" so often portrayed in the media, count your blessings and the positives in your life, he said.
"People's meaningful goals for relationships, achievement and spirituality are likely to be left entirely intact despite the recession, and the same is true for many engaging and interesting activities," Diener wrote in his IPPA address.
For Heather Laughter, a local life coach, the economic crisis could be viewed as an opportunity. The upside of losing a job is you have the chance to consider new opportunities.
Like Diener, she believes happiness is affected by things such as attitude and perspective. If you focus on the bad, that's all you'll see. Oftentimes, a person can learn to appreciate his job more just by making an effort to recognize the good in what he does, she said.
"Most people believe that circumstances cause their feelings and that's not true," said Laughter, who works for Salt Lake City-based SoulSalt and runs a business called Life ReCreated. "People's thoughts about their circumstances are what causes their feelings. So, if you can tweak your thinking a little bit, you can change your feelings. You can literally change your feelings about your job."
Some suggestions include starting a "gratitude journal." Laughter will encourage her clients to write down at least three things they are grateful for each day. She also has clients make a list of 100 things they love to do and then narrow that list to just a few activities they can participate in weekly.
Doing something once a week that you're passionate about can help energize your life, Laughter said.
She also suggests people ask themselves a few soul-searching questions and then take action. For instance, what activities make you happy? If you died tomorrow, what regrets would you have? If you had to do a job for free, what job would it be? How would you want to make a difference in the world?
Just two years ago, Carlene A. Mitchell, a mother of six boys from Draper, took steps to realize her passion for fashion and charity. She launched a clothing line, JonCar Designs LLC, and donates a percentage of her sales to charities.
It's been extremely rewarding, she said.
"There are many out there that are passionate about an idea or a cause, yet are too scared to take the plunge," Mitchell said. "I am thrilled with my accomplishments."
But making that jump requires planning and effort. Life will "get in front of you" unless you make time to pursue a passion and assess how you can be happier, said Laughter.
"What would you rather do, pursue a passion or do nothing?" she asked. "Anything worth having is worth working for, right? So, work a little for it. It's going to be worth having."
She continued: "Bottom line is, anything you can do is going to help. It's not going to hurt."
For more information, log on to: www.liferecreated.com, or www.psych.uiuc.edu/~ediener. Diener and his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, have also written a bestseller about happiness titled: "Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth."