How do we know when we are happy?

We are currently living in remarkable times and are being forced to reassess the way we live. As a result, we have a unique opportunity to take a good look at many aspects of our daily lives and ask ourselves some challenging questions. This article will explore some of those questions and hopefully lead you to further reflection and exploration.

What is happiness?

We get it; happiness is important, we should all be happy. There are shelves stacked with books telling us how to obtain it, but isn’t that part of the problem? There is so much advice out there that it is difficult to pinpoint the answer. The problem lies in the broad nature of the question. What works for you is likely to be different from what works for me. Whilst many of the factors are no doubt the same; family, work, money, health etc. they will appear in a different order for each of us. Then we face the challenge of achieving them. Most of us have commitments that prevent us from leaving our job and living in the South Pacific drinking Margheritas all day (now you know my definition of happiness). By asking ourselves a series of questions and taking time to genuinely consider the answers we might find out what works for us.

Where do I start?

“Rules for Happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”

Immanuel Kant

There are many interpretations of happiness, where do I start? Kant suggests some simple rules which are echoed by Karen and Henry Kimsey-House, Laura Whitworth and Philip Sandahl in their book ‘Co-active Coaching’. They suggest that we should aim for fulfilment, balance and process in our lives. That our daily ‘agenda’ is influenced by these three factors and our day to day issues are subordinate to them. A fulfilling and happy life is one of meaning, purpose and satisfaction. If you can find the shape of your personal fulfilment, then you can take your life in any direction you choose1.

What appeals about this is theory is that there is plenty of flexibility for individual interpretation. How I derive meaning, purpose and satisfaction in my life might be different for you. However, it does provide a strong starting point on the quest to find happiness and the basis for our considerations and questions.


Values. Start by exploring what is truly important to you. So often we think we have a clear answer to this question but when was the last time you really gave yourself time and space to think about this? Accept that your values might change, that what was important to you in your twenties might not be important to you in your forties. There are plenty of exercises to assist in this, but a simple mind map can help lay it out on the page. Seeing it in black and white can be both surprising and revealing.

Be honest. Asking yourself what is important might seem straight forward enough but do not be guided by others or by a social conscience. Be guided by an honest assessment of what gives you meaning, purpose and satisfaction. If work really is the most important thing in your life (right now) then recognise it, consider why this is the case and how this affects the rest of your values and priorities.

Be realistic. We are surrounded by people who seemingly have it all; social media has a lot to answer for. However, for us mere mortals this can seem like an impossible dream. I like the simplicity of the ‘Health, Money, Time’ formula. You can have one or maybe two of these at any one time, but you can’t have them all. Furthermore, I like the idea that this is a formula in flux. Accepting that what you have now is not necessarily fixed for life, can be a release from the stress of trying to achieve them all at the same time. There may be different times in our lives where we deem one to be more important than the others, but this will likely change as our priorities or circumstances change.

“Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. It means that you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.”

Gerard Way

Work/Life balance. I had a coach once who challenged this concept (it would be fair to say he detested the saying). He held that work is part of life therefore we cannot choose to have one over the other rather we need to hold them both together in balance. The truth of the matter is that many of us will spend more time at work than with our family so balancing our work and life priorities is an endless struggle. The stress of modern life is often the result. By way of understanding our relationship with stress I like the simple formula of Comfort, Stretch and Panic as zones of learning. Recognising that we will move in and out of these zones at various times in our lives is important. But this needn’t always lead to stress. Some people derive fulfilment from existing in the Panic zone for long periods of time whilst others want to exist wholly in their Comfort zone. Recognise what works for you and how you are going to achieve it.

Do you love what you do? If work is such a key part of life, then it follows that enjoying our work life is a critical part of achieving overall fulfilment and happiness. Whilst I hold this to be true, (we should all strive to enjoy our work) the achievement of this is one of life’s greatest challenges. As my coach used to say, being valued at work can often come down to answering the simple question; ‘am I heard, and do I matter?’ I envy those who can say, ‘I love my job’. If that’s you then consider why this is the case and remember it for future roles. The reality is that for many the dream job often remains just that; life gets in the way. Therefore, we should start to look at our job as part of a whole. If we cannot ‘love’ our job then it must reward us by providing the things that make us happy (e.g. money, status, time with family, helping others etc). If this is the case, then ask yourself if this is enough to give you meaning, purpose and satisfaction.

Happiness = Success. There are many tales from successful people as to how they made it. This is often attributed to various factors; hard work, luck, failure, money etc. However, when reading about others (and judging ourselves against them) we must ask ourselves the question ‘what does success look like to me?’ Rather like the initial question regarding the meaning of happiness it must hold true that success looks different for all of us. Letting this be defined by others only leads to disappointment. Be honest with yourself about what success looks like to you. Success can sometimes resemble a mixing bowl of ingredients; little bits of everything blended together, leading to an overall feeling of fulfilment and satisfaction.

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

Albert Schweitzer

Take a moment. In his book ‘The Power of Now’ Eckhart Tolle extols the virtue of taking time to appreciate the moment you are in now. To reflect on what you have, where you are and what is going on around you2. Our lives are often full and fraught, with little time for reflection or appreciation of what we have and where we are. Carve out some time to look inwards and consider what make you happy and how you might hold onto this.

As the saying goes; ‘A wise person knows when they are happy’. Take time to reflect on these considerations. If you have ever wanted to know if you have meaning, purpose and satisfaction in your life then have the courage to ask yourself some challenging questions, explore the answers, make a change and go after it.


Ask yourself the questions:

  • What does happiness look like to me?
  • What is important to me?
  • Am I leading a balanced life?
  • What gives me meaning, purpose and satisfaction?
  • How do I achieve this?


  1. Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. 3rd Edition (2011) by Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Philip Sandahl & Laura Whitworth
  2. The Power of Now: A guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. (1999) Eckhart Tolle

Jon Hazan is the Director of Atlas Events, an ex-Army Officer and a qualified Executive Coach. He has worked in the field of team development and leadership for the past eighteen years.