My mind, my thoughts, my words

Well happy!

Before I throw the actual piece at you, I want to clarify something that might, at first sight, not seem very unclear since people tend to use the terms happiness and well-being fairly interchangeably these days, but it is at closer look rather interesting.

Happiness is a very general term that can refer to a joyful state in a particular situation, success and wealth, long-term positive feelings or even a more general sense of life satisfaction. Ed Diner states on his website that many researchers even avoid the term happiness due to its various meanings. But when do you ever actually say “I’m happy!”? When you feel happy in a specific moment. You’re more likely to answer with “I’m well” when you want to refer to your general state of being/doing fine in life, which in my opinion (and the OED supports my point) incorporates happiness, health, mental and physical welfare. Personally, I picture Happiness with a big smile, and Well-being taking a deep, content breath.

This article will not focus on the linguistic side of things, but I wanted to point it out as you may well find the ambiguity of happy appear at times…


Well happy!

Let’s start with a quote from How I met your mother:

Marshall: Lily, can’t you just let us be happy?! Lily: You’re not happy, you just think you’re happy, because you feel happy! Marshall: And that’s not happy? Lily: Of course not.

Well-being is also referred to as ‘the quality of life’ and is a state of life satisfaction (Diener & Diener, 1996) which is defined by three dimensions; living conditionssocial quality (e.g. relationships) and subjective well-being (including mental health (and happiness, for that matter)) (Mathews & Izquierdo, 2008). Not many studies deal with happiness, most focus on ill-being. Think of fairy tales, do they ever expand on howthey lived happily ever after’?

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

This quote summarises the attitude of well-being as being a ‘boring’ matter to study. Just look at these statistics (Anthropology Index Online 1957-2009):

topic number of studies
happiness 24
well-being 80
tattooing 117
flowers 141
suffering 308
alcohol 325
baskets 395
illness 441
peace 463
hair 690
masks 799
violence 1967
health (n.b. mainly about illness) 4565

However, although it may seem that when you’re happy you’re just happy whilst you’re unhappy in different ways, you can be happy differently too! There aren’t only individual and life stage related differences, but also cultural ones, especially between individualist and collectivist societies. Cultural example: How can child prostitutes be happy? Research by Montgomery (2007) and Rende-Taylor (2005) of child prostitution in Thailand showed that the children separated their minds and their bodies (Buddhist beliefs that the physical body is non-permanent). They would say “it is just my body”, their clients were often friends and they didn’t pay directly but supported them on a long-term basis (paying housing, schooling etc.). Prostitution was a better job (indoors, urban, certain amount of freedom of choosing clients) than agricultural labour to support their families. Westerners might not understand how kids who firstly work and secondly do ‘such a job’ could be happy, but this simply proves that our Western view on a ‘normal, happy’ childhood differs dramatically and that living conditions might not be of that much importance to them, demonstrating that different factors are of different value to various cultures. You know the saying ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ – a person fulfilling the ‘living conditions’ and ‘subjective well-being’ dimensions may lack ‘social quality’, i.e. not have any good relationships. These are particularly important in collectivist societies. Interestingly though, if you conducted a survey on ‘what makes you happy?’ with people in an individualist society, most people would still answer strongly in terms of their social relationships (friendships, families and romantic partners). The difference then lies in the importance of emotional satisfaction (for individualists) and harmony (for collectivists), but it also demonstrates that deep down human beings are social beings, and love in all its forms defines us greatly. So what am I going on about?In a nutshell, well-being is defined by different terms for each of us, some aspects are more, some less important which is however similar for individuals of the same society. Personally, every one of the ‘three well-being dimensions’ somewhat matters to me, but if all went wrong I could still ‘happily’ live on the street as long as I was healthy and had somebody to love me and love back.

To come back to the quote from the beginning of the post; maybe Lily and Marshall are drawing attention to the linguistic features of ‘happiness’ (which I outlined at the very beginning) – while it may mean ‘a long-term state of well-being’ to some, it might mean ‘a short-lived state of happiness’ to others. So Marshall is probably referring to ‘long-term well-being’ and Lily is saying that even if he is feeling happy (short-term happy) he might not actually be happy (in a long-term well-being sense). And if all this talk about different and same meanings of different words or even one word got you interested, there’s a discipline you can study at university called linguistics. I’m one of those linguistic fellas as you might have noticed. And the next thing I’m gonna do is, invent a new word for ‘different’!


Diener, E., & Diener, C., 1996. Most people are happy. Psychological Science 7(3): 1811–85. Mathews, G., & Izquierdo, C., 2008. Pursuits Of Happiness: Well-Being In Anthropological Perspective. New York: Berghahn Books.

Montgomery, H. (2007). Working with child prostitutes in Thailand: Problems of practice and interpretation. Childhood14(4): 415-430.

Rende Taylor, L. (2005). Dangerous trade-offs: The behavioral ecology of child labor and prostitution in rural northern Thailand. Current Anthropology46(3), 411-432.

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