The Happiness Quotient – Part 1

I know an elderly woman – perhaps 60, looks 70 – who’s a sweeper in Blue Cross. She’s single and has a bed-ridden sister to take care of. She used to own a flat – “617 SQFT, madam”, she told me – but lost it due to her gullibility. She now lives in a hut, trying to make ends meet in the paltry INR 4,000 (approximately $100) per month paid by Blue Cross.

She’s reasonably fluent in English, but couldn’t find a better job. She finds her job beneath her dignity, especially since she comes from the upper-most caste in India – the Brahmins. She’s an unhappy woman, dejected with her life. Her sorrow is writ large on her well-lined face.

I empathize with her – I understand her unhappiness.

What I can’t understand is the burgeoning unhappiness amongst the upper middle class and the supra-rich in the world, particularly India. There are a lot of God-men and God-women pandering to this need, entrenching themselves well in this business of coaxing people that they deserve to be happier than they are.

What about the previous generation – those past 50? Did they need any classes on the Art of Living? Or on Life Bliss? Why then does this generation – those between the ages of 30 and 45 – need classes to teach them happiness and wellbeing?

To be fair, the previous generation didn’t have to deal with grueling schedules or work over the weekends. Their promotions were based mostly on qualification and seniority – not on merit as judged by their bosses. Appraisals were a mere formality – they were not heartbreaking affairs, as they are now.

Naturally, they made a lot less money than the present generation. Interestingly enough, they led happier lives. More Money = More Happiness isn’t a valid equation anyway.

Let’s try to understand why the previous generation was happier.

Their work-lives couldn’t have been stress-free, but they accepted it as part of life. They didn’t have an option. Acceptance makes burdens lighter. They also worked 9 – 5 jobs, which left a lot of quality time with family. And they placed emphasis on their family life – Family was the 1st Priority. Their lives were filled with minor and major festivals and the intricacies of dealing with them. Their pleasures were simple – a visit to the temple, a concert and an occasional visit to a restaurant. Summer vacations were spent with the extended family.

Do you see a pattern emerging here? They derived pleasure from being with other people. They relished simple joys. They did not aspire for a bigger house, an LED TV or a vacation to Spain. They were – shall I say this – Contented?

So is “Contentment” another word for “Happiness”?

To understand happiness better, shall we see what happiness isn’t? Depression. As a chronic migraine sufferer, I go through periods of intense serotonin lows. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that determines how “Happy” we are, for want of a better word. So from time to time, I go through what can only be termed bouts of depression.

My “depression” (for I don’t know what else to call it) is organic. Contrary to what you think, I don’t feel sad when I’m “depressed”. My sense of humor actually kicks up a notch. But I feel “Flat” – In neutral gear. I don’t feel the “Ups” and I’m curiously detached. I become more obsessive about work. And I feel like an automaton – I’m incapable of feeling. While its not an unpleasant state to be in permanently, its far from being an ideal state.

So is happiness simply having constant “Ups”, feeling frenetically attached, letting your hair down at work and feeling intensely? Honestly, that doesn’t seem like a nice state – it sounds more like someone stuck at being 5 years old. You’ll end up getting hurt or fired – but hey, you’ll have constant “Ups”?

We’re getting definitely somewhere. Too much happiness ain’t good for you. What we need is – moderation. We need more “Ups” than “Downs”, we need to feel (but know how to engage the neutral gear), be attached (but know how to detach ourselves when needed), have fun (but know when to take work seriously). Gee, that sounds a lot like another word – Maturity. Or Balance.

So is sustainable “Happiness” the same as being “Mature”?

What is an “Up”? It’s a short burst of feeling good about yourself. The entire happiness industry is based on the principle that such “Ups” can be endlessly extended. The corollary is, if you aren’t so happy that you’re beaming sunshine from your butt, you’re a failure.

What do we call this extended “Up” cycle? There’s a different word for that too. Its called being “Cheerful”. Interestingly enough, they did a longitudinal study in 1922 involving 1,216 kids. All the kids who were markedly cheerful died early. The trouble is, those with a perennially sunny disposition are unable to assess problems and risks in a meaningful manner.

So what’s the use of happiness if too much happiness kills us? Happiness is a fleeting reward circuitry conjured up by our brains. Eat that chocolate. Flirt with that girl. Be praised by the boss.

Fact is, there are some things that are far more important than “Happiness”. Perhaps when people realize the pleasures from those, they’ll stop hankering after happiness.


  1. Quote

    Good one Priya. I like the flow (Happiness = Contentment + Maturity (to handle ‘Ups’ and ‘Downs’)).

    Would like to get some reference on the 1922 study. Interesting observation.

    On your final note, I believe Pleasure = Happiness. Why do you say that they will stop hankering? I thought they should continue to realize pleasure from those things.

  2. Quote

    Interesting and a deep subject, Priya.

    What you said about older generation deriving pleasure from relationships in insightful.

    I have a theory on why the older generation was happier
    I wouldn’t define happiness as a constant “up” but rather a continuous state of contentment which comes with being comfortable with who you are and what you have. It is like the difference between the thrill of going on a rollercoaster ride and the comfort of being at home. A rollercoaster ride is thrilling and enjoyable but cannot last forever. But a state of peace and happiness that comes from being “at home” is different. While you can do without the former, it is impossible to be without the latter. By home, I don’t literally mean one’s house, it is any place where you can be happy (not excited, thrilled or ecstatic, just happy)
    I personally think the reason for lot of unhappiness today is that we are constantly seeking the “Up” happiness and forgotten about the “at home” happiness. A promotion, appraisal, incentive are all “Ups” happiness. We have completely taken for granted all the things that we already have. I think in the previous generation there was a conscious awareness and gratitude for things they had. An awareness which may not be producing the “ups” of delight but rather a continuous state of psychological well being.

  3. Quote

    Murr – Thanks for your comment.

    I think Pleasure = Joy, not happiness. You get pleasure when you eat an icecream cone, but what happens when the cone’s over? Happiness is a continuous frame of mind.

    I agree though that people should seek joy in the small things life has to offer, instead of seeking a rainbow.

  4. Quote

    Archana – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, constant “ups” isn’t happiness. Happiness is finding joy in the small things of life.

    Being comfortable with who they are – this requires a lot of introspection & self-esteem. Very few people in the world – the very wise – are capable of this. But, the previous generation were happy with what they had. They were contented with the small joys life had to over – a good song, a tasty sandwich, the weather, a decent movie, a nice shirt. In short, they had contentment. Which is different from satisfaction, which is short-lived.

    I think contentment is one of the ways in which one can be happy. In the next part, I plan to explore other ways also.

  5. Quote
    Kumaran said March 18, 2011, 5:53 pm:


    Good thought provoking post.

    I think India is itself caught in a chasm between the capitalist and socialist/spiritual worlds. I think the one who are exactly at the centre of this intersection happens to be the upper middle class. So the measure of successful which was how you were valued within the circle include family was driver in those days. It happens to be position you hold, the car, apartment you own. Folks have made a remark – “You drive a motorcycle” these include at work and outside as well ( not that I really care 🙂 )

    Spirituality is my passion but without any so called gurus.Somehow I have not got a good guru/mentor yet. So there are books out there. Eckhart Tolle happens to be one of them. There is a book “Power of Now” which deals with it nicely without any religious slant which I like about that book.

    In essence the state to be is a state of peace which comes with acceptance. Unfortunately acceptance is confused with “defeatist”, “indifference”, “dereliction” etc. That is not true with acceptance comes a much more practical motivation to do things.

    The most interesting thing about acceptance is that you are in a state of “Joy/Bliss” compared to happiness which has an opposite called sadness. But dictionary seems to suggest the opposite of bliss as sadness or extreme unhappiness. I can’t get myself to agree with that antonym.

    I think it is about understanding the “yin-yang” of life around us. ( )

  6. Quote

    Kumaran – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes – Acceptance is very important. Only that will give you contentment – or inner peace. I have a different take on “Bliss”. I’ll cover that in the 2nd part.

  7. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 18, 2011, 9:03 pm:

    Insightful post on a complex subject. It is possibly one of the most enduring pursuits of humanity – the pursuit of happiness. You may want to follow Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project.

    Like the others I’m also curious about the 1922 study, please link to it if it is online.

    I think the answer of why the people are looking for happiness/bliss etc could be because life’s basic necessities have been fulfilled for them.

    Look forward to the 2nd part.

  8. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment.

    Thanks – I’ll look up Rubin’s project.

    If life’s basic necessities are taken care of, rather than looking for the “happy” pill, I wish people would move on to self actualization. That will automatically make them happier.

    Here’s the link to the study:;jsessionid=56309E35DB4245D2E88B36D83B26DBB8.jvm1

  9. Quote
    Dhivakar said March 18, 2011, 9:38 pm:


    The Happiness Quotient is very intersting and waiting to read part 2.

    According to me, previous generation was happier than current 35+ due to following reasons :-

    1. Joint Family Culture – Elders guidance or support ( Esp. in rural areas)
    2. Less Media Domination and not much Information Load.

    Completely agreeing with – lot of quality time with family. And they placed emphasis on their family life – Family was the 1st Priority.

    Great Article to read . Thanks.

  10. Quote

    Wonderful thought provoking writeup. Congrats for that.

    Happiness. Can I define it? I don’t know. I am not that ‘Mature’ may be. I may not agree with the fact that the previous generation was happier than us. May be they didn’t express it. Marriages were never meant to be broken there and they might have lived in a virtual world where they fooled themselves that they liked their partners/extended families. But why to copy from another generation?

    Let us talk more about how we can be happy. First of all I think it is the work. Most of the people in this world struggle to leave the work at the work place. It causes two problems. One, your immediate family feels far from you. Two, many of us didn’t choose the profession that we wanted. Many a times, it was our parents or the money involved forced us into the profession where we are. When you do a task more than 50 hours a week and if you are not really interested on that task, it will affect the ‘happiness’ factor in you.

    So with the maturity that I have, I think if I can choose the work that I want and if I can keep it around 50 hours a week, then yes, I will be more happy than what I am today. But sometimes that means I will be choosing a path that is deserted by the society or a path where I may not get enough money as my peers. Can I be content with that? If I can, then may be that is the path that can lead to the ‘Pursuit of happiness’.

    BTW sorry if I diverted the topic anywhere or if my points doesn’t make sense at all. Because as I started this comment, I don’t think I am mature. 🙂

  11. Quote

    Thought provoking post and comments. Seems like the goal to find that “inner” peace/contentment whatever that might be ;). I am still coming to terms with previous generation being more happy/content and that somehow is due to the fact that they were more “social” and did not have too many material things to go after or work was not the blocker to happiness.

    When we start going after things that we do not have, but adds no real meaning to what we as a person are (which I have been known to do!!), that could lead to disenchantment. So, it is perfectly OK to go after material things such as the big screen TV or pay a premium to watch a cricket match up and close if that adds value to your life (emotional moments that triggers the feel good harmones). And if being anti-social or an introvert is what I like being as a person, more power to me. What I would not want is someone saying that being materialistic, social etc. is the only means to happiness, which I feel a lot of “life gurus” do nowadays.

    IMHO, what happiness means will and does morph over time and could be ephemeral. Contentment is a more permanent state of the mind I think. Contentment is finding the inner state of calmness under both good and bad times.

  12. Quote

    Wonderful post. Based on my opinion, we all are living in an advanced technological era where technology provides all kind of comfort and nothing is impossible but happiness. Happiness is directly related to ‘us’, i mean happiness is the only one can be controlled by us. All other emotions are something triggered by external forces. I think most of us don’t know how to get happiness by our own way, we used to get advice from others or we jump into conclusions like ‘making money gives you happiness’ or ‘vacation at XYZ’ or ‘buy big car’ etc. Since those are just artificial and not meant to us, we end up again same sadness route. What we need is, think about us, spend more time with family,get advice from parents,elders and donate rather than thinking about others, spending more time with work,ignoring elders and spending money unnecessary for self, happiness follows instantly

  13. Quote

    Subba – Thanks for your comment.

    I agree that happiness is within our control. Excessive consumption, as you say, can never make us happy in the long term. I think you hit it – Spending time/money on others will bring on happiness.

  14. Quote

    Ganesh – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, we can certainly buy the big screen TV or a bigger car. What I mean to say is, just acquiring the next cool gadget – or living up to the Joneses – will not make you happy.

    Please wait for the next part. I have no intention of being the next Shri Shri Ravishankar, I have more points to add in my next post (other than contentment, family/friends & maturity).

    That other people make one happier is a proven fact. Someone can be an introvert. I’m one. This simply means I’m not a party animal & I take time to warm up to people. It also means I have a smaller circle of people I’m close to. This does not mean that I’m anti-social or I find it difficult to open up to anyone. Anti-social people will be more depressed & unhappy.

    Happiness is a state of mind – its not the same as pleasure, which is short-lived. It is as long-lived as contentment. As such, it is definitely possible to construct a non-ephemeral framework that will lead people towards more happiness.

    Contentment is not the same as peace of mind or being calm. Very contented people can have explosive tempers & may have difficulty in tiding over bad times.

  15. Quote

    Senthil – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    I believe anything can be defined. Some are complex, some have varying degrees of complexity.

    Regarding the previous generation – There’s no harm in trying to understand why they were happier & if they were, copy some of their precepts. We don’t have to create everything afresh for every generation. True, some of them stayed in unhappy marriages or in an unhappy joint family system. What I mean to say is, happiness is relative. Stress, angst, confusion & unhappiness are more palpable in those < 45 years of age. Its much rarer in those > 50. Clearly, this generation has a problem staying happy.

    As I said, working longer hours in a corporate setup takes a toll on one’s happiness. Regarding the kind of work that you want to do – please stay tuned for part 2. No line of job is bull-shit free. Our parents understood that. For some reason, those < 35 have a tough time accepting that.

  16. Quote

    Dhivakar – Thanks for your comment.

    What you say about media domination is interesting. By itself, it may not make people unhappy. But, the fear mongering done by the media – by propagating bad news over & over again – will make people unhappier. I remember the days when news was just news, not “Breaking News”.

  17. Quote


    Perhaps it could be a case of definitions being different. I equate contentment as a state of mind that spans time. And this does not mean having a zen like mind-state at all times, though that is the goal. It is being satisfied with what we have and who we are as a human being and social animal. It is being comfortable in our own skin and our current state of being.

    It is not clear to me what you think the large difference between contentment and happiness is, though you think both of them are long lived. I associate happiness with a state of elation, elevation of positive aspects of the brain. And that elevated state, I do not associate with contentment.

    Will wait for your next post.

  18. Quote

    Very interesting & thought-provoking post! Thanks Priya.

    My two cents…

    I think the need for instant gratification is very high with the present generation, while the previous generations were more patient, willing to wait for 7 births for some rewards:-))

    As you mentioned, lifestyle (work, family…) & acceptance has a significant impact on personal happiness. One’s attitude towards life is another piece of this equation. I think Optimists = Happier people. People who believe that they are the creators of their destiny/fate, rather than victims of it, are generally more happy. I think they view stress factors as challenges & not threats. I know a few eternal optimists:-)))

    Waiting for Part II

  19. Quote

    Hema – Thanks for your comment.

    You’re right. Instant gratification can lead to pleasure, not lasting happiness. And a large part of happiness is not the happiness itself, but the path that leads to it, the work that’s put in.

    You make an excellent point. People who take charge of their lives maybe happier than those who think they don’t control their lives. Also, it helps being slightly more optimistic than neutral to be happy.

  20. Quote

    Ganesh – Elation isn’t happiness. Elation is a short burst of extreme joy. Whereas happiness is one’s general temperament of being satisfied with one’s lot, of being slightly upbeat. Contentment can lead to greater happiness.

  21. Quote
    Nimmy (subscribed) said March 22, 2011, 9:57 am:

    This is a pet topic of mine. I think you’ve articulated your thoughts in a very interesting and thought-provoking manner, Priya. Even as I started reading the post, two words that popped into my head were “Moderation” and “Balance”. I’m a person who is generally happy, positive and optimistic, even though I come across a fair share of “downs” and dull/bored moments every week or let’s say month. I’ve always believed that being happy has led me to persist in achieving whatever I had set my mind on – well, more often than not. Worst case, a happy person may find it easy to move on to another area of interest, which is good. It’s not about cheating ourselves, however.

    Ultimately, just finding meaning in what we do or having a significant ‘purpose’ in life can be equated to happiness (or should it be contentment in this case?) irrespective of the downs and ups and the environmental conditions. Deep subject indeed. Not something that can be wrapped up in a few paragraphs. 😉 Thanks for the nice read! Going over to read part-2 now!

  22. Quote

    Nimmy – Thanks for your comment.

    Moderation & Balance can most certainly reduce unhappiness.

    Dull, Bored moments – Please see Part 2, where I talk about stimulation. And no, happiness is real. Is not about cheating ourselves.

    Some people have a happy disposition – Please see Sukumar’s comment to Part 2 & my response to him.

    I believe most things are inherently simple. Most, not all. As such, it is easy to condense their components into a few pages.

  23. Quote
    Ruchi (subscribed) said April 3, 2011, 11:08 pm:

    Your post in insightful and thoughtful , Priya ! which leads me to ask a related question what is the purpose of education ?
    Consider what the likes of IIMs , ISB ( for that matter business schools all over world ! ) are doing to generations of India in additon to a great service to the India Inc.

    1. Developing capacity & capability to aim for higher incomes.
    2. Utilize that capacity to go for higher paying jobs .
    3. Higher paying jobs lead them to have more purchasing power
    4. More purchasing power = Consumerism culture
    5. LED TV, Big Car , Big House, Materialistic things is not equal to happiness and rather leave a person feeling shallow or unhappy.
    When the hangover of materialistic things is over they start questioning meaning of life rather than finding meaning in Life itself. ( Author, Robert Fulghum does this wonderfully well ! )

    For some reason, i feel happy about being INTP, an introvert, a hermit , contended , mature and balanced person that i am .
    unfortunately for some of the people , contentment = lack of ambition which i don’t agree.
    your thoughts are more than welcome..

  24. Quote

    Ruchi – Thanks for your comment.

    Consumerism – Yes, we’re imitating the US in everything we do – it can’t be good.

    I’m an INTP too. “Hermit-like” is spot on!

    INTP is as good as other types, but it does have certain disadvantages. I had to learn social skills the hard way. Same about money & practical stuff like being on time. And I’m altogether too balanced – to be almost flat. At times, I think it will be nicer to enjoy sensory pleasures more.

    But I do enjoy the child-like disposition INTP offers, along with the ability to be analytical & the desire to see the big picture. Being an INTP prompts me to construct a framework with which to see everything (including this post).

  25. Quote
    Sathish (subscribed) said April 29, 2011, 11:12 pm:

    > Happiness == Contentment
    > True
    > kids != Mature
    > kids = Happy
    > Happy == Maturity
    > False

Leave a Comment



Formatting Your Comment

The following XHTML tags are available for use:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

URLs are automatically converted to hyperlinks.