Q: What's the true path to happiness?

A: Most of my clients make appointments to see me for therapy because they want to end their anguish and find happiness. Sometimes, they tell me horrible accounts of abuse or loss, but most people come in with little understanding of their problem and lots of assumptions about what makes people happy. See if you can spot the real issues and the keys to happiness in the following stories.

1. Renee was depressed. Ever since she went to her sister's wedding a month ago, she's been very unhappy. "My older sister married a very rich man, and when I saw her new home and car and jewelry, it felt like something died between me and my husband Roger." She and Roger were hardly starving, but Renee worried that she was falling out of love with her husband of fifteen years.

2. All his life Travis wanted a son. His own father died when Travis was very young, and Travis said he spent his life staring at families and wondering what it would be like to be in one.  As soon as he and Tracy married, they had three children-all boys.  But after seven years of marriage, Travis and Tracy both say they don't feel as close and happy as they thought they'd be.

3. Marcie learned from her mother that you make your bed, and you lie in it. "She said, get a job, give to charity, fall in love, get married, have babies and make it work. Well, no matter what I do, it's never going to work. My husband's a mean drunk and that's that."

These three stories address some of the top myths and factors about happiness. Since few people can escape all of their societal values, many think that money, marriage and family are the keys to contentment. And, in some ways, they would be right. But, in other important ways, they would be wrong.

Happiness is a hot topic in mental health right now.  One of the most respected professionals is Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard University researcher and author of Stumbling on Happiness. His findings, as well as the work of others, clear up some of the misconceptions about what really makes people happy. 

So, let's see how you did in detecting the real issue in the stories above.

1. Renee and Roger:  How much money do you really need to be happy?

Give yourself a gold star if you thought that Renee's depression stemmed from her jealousy. Sibling rivalry can be higher between same sex siblings, especially if they are close in age. It's almost as though the mere presence-or shadow-of this sibling doesn't leave enough psychological room for you to be you. Instead of Renee realizing that her sister's wedding sparked her childhood feelings of inferiority, she assumed the problem was that Roger could never give her a lavish lifestyle.

Lurking just below the surface of Renee's misinterpretation, however, is the cultural belief that money can buy you happiness.  In his research, Dr. Gilbert discovered that a middle class income is the monetary sweet spot for happiness. This amount permits goodies such nutritious food, sufficient care of most children-and fun.  Higher sums do not yield happiness.  In fact, for many people, chasing the dollar often puts them on an escalating course of wanting more! 

The lesson is that, yes, sufficient-enough money brings the comfort and peace of mind that are some of the ingredients for happiness.  But don't bank on more money creating more satisfaction. Danger lies in blaming your spouse for your unresolved problems. 

2. Travis and Tracy: Is having children a guarantee of happiness?

If you thought that Travis and Tracy had children too quickly, you are on the right track. Dr. Gilbert, as well as countless other social scientists, found that childless couples report the highest levels of happiness.  Marital contentment declines a little after the first child, and the least happy couples are the ones with more than one school-aged child. 

Don't panic. It's not too late if you already have several young ones at home. And these findings don't mean you shouldn't have children. However, use this information to spur you to pay more attention to both your intimate relationship and your personal needs.

Finally, be aware of those cultural and personal fantasies about white picket fence, two kids and pets.  Travis's loss of his father at a young age created an unrealistic script of family life.

3. Marcie: Do you risk greater unhappiness by leaving a bad marriage?

The advice of Marcie's mother is a mix of wisdom and outmoded social convention. So, give yourself another gold star if you were confused.  Let's look at her mother's negative guidance first.  Research shows that even very happy marriages go through extended rough patches. To get through the bad times these coupled rely on strong commitment, mutual respect, team work and good problem-solving solving skills.

But love does not conquer all. Some problems such as abuse and drunken rages erode trust, love and safety so much that remaining married can impair the health and mental health of you and your children. Get professional help. Only good marriages contribute to longevity, good health and happiness.

Yet, Marcie's mother is not all wrong. Other aspects of happiness include meaningful work and giving to others. Charitable acts boost self-worth, curb loneliness and lessen depression.  Both volunteer and paid work that is important to you increases inner peace. But the work needs to be more than getting a paycheck, and the volunteer activities need to be more than stuffing envelopes. The social connection is crucial to both situations, but to feel truly happy, you need a sense of control and relevance. None of us wants to see our efforts go to waste or be unacknowledged.  Not having any say over the use of our talents turns the best job into drudgery. 

For example Martin Seligman, researcher and author of "Learned Optimism," found that people are happier when their hard work makes a difference. These happy people take reasonable risks for realistic goals and manage change and seek it when necessary. Most importantly, they believe that they can take greater charge of what life throws at them.

So, if you want to be happy and healthy, make a good marriage, correct dips in discontent if you have children, don't think money buys joy, do charitable deeds, find fulfilling work and pursue reasonable risks and goals -a simply sweet recipe for a very complicated cake.