The Measure of Happiness

Martijn raised an interesting question the other day. How do you measure happiness? At first glance it seems like an easy question. You think of simple answers that people tend to give; family work friends…but the answer is not that simple. At least for me. There have been times where each of these things has made me definitely ‘not happy’ so how can they be a measure of my intrinsic happiness?

 It has to be something more than external factors, something less tangible. Take family for example:  if family is a determinant of happiness then what about the person who has no family? Does that automatically make them unhappy?  I can say my work makes me happy, but if I lose my job does that mean I am unhappy? I may be stressed, frustrated and not happy but will I become an unhappy person?

Happiness is different than being dissatisfied. We are all dissatisfied with different areas of our lives but that doesn’t automatically equal being unhappy. Being dissatisfied does have connotations of activity to me. Being dissatisfied with something in your life should lead you to change it. Or if you can’t, to accept it as a part of your life that is unsatisfactory but not happiness defining. We all have some aspects of our lives that we are seeking to change – some we will be successful in changing and others we won’t be. But to allow that to define your happiness level is a mistake … a never ending battle. (I guess that’s why plastic surgeons and romance novelists are so popular)


So how does one define happiness then? I’m not satisfied with defining it as an emotion – I guess that comes from wanting to be able to quantify it in research terms. How do you measure an emotion?  And how do you measure one persons emotion against another’s?

I’ve spoken to a few people about this and we have has some really interesting conversations about life and expectations and happiness. Thinking about it the only way I can really define it for myself is to think of happiness as a state of being, that permits you to maintain emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual balance.

I think the notion of balance is key. It allows you to accept that there are negative or unhappy moments in everyone’s life but that they should not override the positive – they should not negate the good in your life.  As a Muslim balance is something I’ve been taught to strive for as well, so I guess it makes sense for me to see happiness as being a balanced state of existence.

My brother made a comment that “a person can be happy in a prison just as another can be unhappy in a mansion”. It’s true I guess. I’ve never been in a prison or a mansion so I can’t speak from experience. But if you imagine a person in prison who has achieved a balanced state of being then why shouldn’t they experience happiness? As well if you imagine one who lives in a mansion yet has not achieved this state it isn’t difficult to imagine them being unhappy.


When I first started thinking about how to measure happiness I started listing all the things that made me ‘happy’ – I went over my day and started counting all the things that brought a smile to my face. And I realized that despite the small dissatisfactions in my life I am happy. Which had the effect of making me even happier.

So thank you Martijn for posing the question. Maybe friends are a part of the measure of happiness after all 🙂


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