The Happiness Equation

Is it possible to be happy in the midst of the uncertainty surrounding us due to COVID-19?

Kishore Subramanian
16 min readApr 6, 2020

This article is the first part of a series of articles on Happiness.

Part 1: The Happiness Equation

Part 2: Understanding Stillness

What is happiness?

I am sure we have asked this question at one time or the other. We may have also asked the question “What is the purpose of life?”. I may not be off the mark if I say that most of us may answer this question as: “I want to be happy”. Would you agree?

Yet, most of us find ourselves in a state of dissatisfaction. We are seldom satisfied with the current moment. We want something more or want to change something. We feel that if we just have that one thing or achieve the next level, we will be happier. But when we get there, we are not exactly happier. The goalpost has been moved. It seems like happiness is sprinkled between long periods of dissatisfaction. Even when we experience happiness, it seems fleeting, ephemeral. The thing or situation which made us happy does not keep us in that state for long. Our mind seems to move on to desiring other things.

Is it possible for us to be happy most of the time? Or always?

What is happiness? To answer this important question, it might be easier to start with yet another question: What makes me happy? This question, however, is subjective. But let’s give it a shot. Can you write down or mentally note down 10 things that make you happy?

I cannot possibly think of everything that makes everyone happy. But let’s just say we came up with one or more items from the following list:

  • I am happy if my family is happy
  • I am happy when I am with friends
  • I am happy when I travel
  • I am happy when I am with my wife/husband/partner
  • I will be happy when I have enough money to retire and not work for money
  • I will be happy when I own a house of my dreams
  • I will be happy when I become the CEO/CFO (replace with your career goal)
  • I will be if I lose 40 pounds
  • I am happy when I have great clothes and choicest accessories
  • I will be happy when I feel healthy again and don’t have to visit the doctor/hospital anymore
  • I will be happy if my partner and I have kids
  • I will be when my kids get into the IIT / Ivy League college
  • I will be happy when my kids get married
  • I am happy when my kids and family call or see me every day

— — — -

  • I am an artist and I am the happiest when I am playing my instrument/dancing/composing
  • I am a runner and I am happy when I run
  • I am happy when I am completely and whole-heartedly involved in an activity

The list is of course, incomplete. But it gives you a general idea of what we may come up with. I can generalize the above statement using an equation, which I call the “Happiness Equation” as follows (for now):

I will be happy WHEN {condition is met}


Let’s analyze the above equation and apply it to our own lives. To do this, let us go back in time and think of situations when we achieved what we set out to do thereby satisfying the Happiness Equation as stated above. In high school, our happiness condition was getting into a good college. Many of us achieved that and our happiness knew no bounds. We were elated! We were on top of the world. All the hard work had paid off. Nothing could make us happier. We felt complete!

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

But the happiness did not last forever even though the condition was met. Soon, the elation wore off and many new conditions got added to the list. “I will be happy when I land a well-paying job” or “I will be happy when I get into a good university for the Master’s program” and so on. And we shifted our focus to fulfilling the next set of conditions. Doesn’t it feel like we are playing a game of whack-a-mole? We complete one only to realize that few more have sprung up.

We found ourselves adding many more items to the happiness list: a house, car, partner, wealth, fame, the power to name a few. This is true of our lives today. Doesn’t it feel like we are on a hamster wheel, chasing one condition after the other to satisfy our happiness equation?

The feeling of “I want…” or “I want to get rid of …” seems to be ever-present no matter what I have achieved.

Let’s continue our analysis of the Happiness Equation with a few more examples. Here is a happiness statement we made earlier:

I will be happy when I have enough money to retire

Many amongst us may have satisfied the conditions. Even if we haven’t, we can look at people who have already satisfied this condition.

  • Are all rich people happy? Are all poor people unhappy?
  • Are all powerful people (politicians) happy?
  • Are all artists, celebrities at the peak of their career happy?

Politicians are probably the last category of people you will think of in the context of happiness. Power does not give happiness.

If you look around, you will realize that many celebrities have openly spoken out about depression and their struggle with mental illness. The deaths of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and Heath Ledger are all in one way or the other connected to their mental condition.

Here is Ben Affleck reflecting upon his condition in a recent New York Times article:

“People with compulsive behavior, and I am one, have this kind of basic discomfort all the time that they’re trying to make go away,” he said a couple of Sundays ago during a two-hour interview at a beachside spot in Los Angeles. “You’re trying to make yourself feel better with eating or drinking or sex or gambling or shopping or whatever. But that ends up making your life worse. Then you do more of it to make that discomfort go away. Then the real pain starts. It becomes a vicious cycle you can’t break. That’s at least what happened to me.”

And this is Deepika Padukone discussing her condition:

The word that best describes my experience of depression is a struggle. Every second was a struggle. I felt exhausted the whole time. There is this perception that if you have everything — fame, money, family — why should one be depressed. It is important to understand what depression is and why it happens. It is a clinical condition that is beyond your control.”

Imagine Dragons’ lead singer Dan Reynolds has recently spoken about depression on his Twitter feed.

These celebrities have everything many are seeking. They have money, fame, talent. And yes, they have enough money to retire today and work on pretty much anything. And yet, it doesn’t look like they are in a state of bliss. It does not matter that they are celebrities at the top of their game, living in mansions in the most desirable neighborhood. They seem to be suffering just as someone with far fewer comforts. The only difference between the suffering of haves and have-nots seems to be that the former suffers in comfort and the latter suffers without comforts.

Fame, wealth, beauty, talent, power, etc do not seem to guarantee happiness.

I am happy when I am with my family/friends

True. We love to be with our family and near and dear ones. But is it their presence that gives us happiness? We realize from our own lives that relationships can sometimes give us happiness, sometimes grief and it keeps oscillating. It is not absolute. People change, their needs, their wants change within minutes. We wouldn’t want to give the key to our happiness treasure box to anyone else, no matter how close. Agree?

People cannot give us absolute happiness

How about places, things, and situations? Let’s take music for instance. My sons love rap music and they are very happy when they listen to it. Others may hate rap music. So is rap music responsible for happiness or unhappiness? It seems to be giving happiness to one set of listeners and makes others unhappy.

A couple of years ago, we were at the beach, enjoying the sunset of a warm, balmy day. It was fantastic. I remember being very happy, calm, contented. A couple was sitting nearby and having a heated conversation. They were not present. They may be physically at the beach but their minds were somewhere else. The brilliant sunset did not make them happy.

How about things? An expensive car, the latest gadgets?

We have all acquired something — a gadget, car, house, etc — at some point or the other. We enjoyed unwrapping the gadget and the feeling of fulfillment when we drove the luxury car out of the dealership. Do these things give us the same level of happiness after a few days or weeks?

The more things we acquire, the more stressed we become. Why? There is effort involved in acquiring, effort in maintaining and grief when the thing is no longer associated with you. For example, if you own a luxury car, you are likely to be more stressed when you park the car in a public parking lot in the city than when you park an older car.

Places & things cannot give us lasting happiness


From these examples, we established that people, places, things, money, fame, situations, etc cannot give us lasting happiness. When we acquire things, fame, etc, we feel fulfilled resulting in happiness. But sooner or later, the fulfillment and satisfaction go away and we are back to desiring more things. We find ourselves experiencing short periods of happiness (fulfillment) between long periods of dissatisfaction.

Let’s examine the examples more carefully.

Example 1: Achievement (promotion, win a championship, buy a new house, etc)

Before achievement:

  • A strong feeling of “I want”
  • Stress, anxiety — will I get it? What if I don’t?
  • Fear — What if the outcome is unfavorable?
  • Anger — anyone/anything who comes in the way of my achievement

Before Achievement → wants, fear of outcome → agitated mind → Dissatisfied, unhappy

After achievement with a positive outcome:

  • An overwhelming sense of relief
  • A feeling of completeness, fullness
  • Contentment, satisfaction, fulfillment
  • A feeling of expansion

Achievement ⇒ mental relief, satisfaction, fulfillment → calm mind ⇒ happiness

If we fail to achieve the goal:

  • Feeling incomplete, dissatisfied
  • Regret — maybe I should have done better?
  • Anger, jealousy — How did X or Y get it whereas I did not?

The achievement by itself is not the cause of happiness or unhappiness in us. For instance, the same situation (eg: getting a promotion) may give grief to someone else who may have expected to be promoted. When we achieve something (buy a new house, etc), our happiness is the result of feeling satisfied and fulfilled.

Example #2: People — near and dear ones

With relationships, we see that the same person may evoke joy in one person and hate or indifference in another person. Our relationship with this person may also change over time.

So is the person responsible for our happiness?

With relationships, we feel happy when they fulfill our expectations. For instance, we feel happy when our children meet our expectations or others behave as per our expectations. We have the most expectations of our near and dear ones. When these expectations are met, we are pleased. When the same people do not meet our expectations, we feel disturbed.

People (near and dear ones) ⇒ meet our expectations of them ⇒ pleased mind → happiness

Example #3: I am the happiest when I am completely involved in an activity

We feel very happy when we are completely and whole-heartedly immersed in an activity, be it playing an instrument, composing music, choreographing a dance sequence, writing software code, building something intricate (glass art, for instance) or engaged in a sport. We have all felt this some time or the other, haven’t we? The state lasts for a few minutes or even hours in some rare cases. If you are a sports fan, we see this often in games where the player seems invincible, unbeatable, making those unbelievable 3 pointers in basketball or hitting those down-the-line winners in tennis. We have also seen artists reach dizzying heights during a performance.

If you analyze one of those occasions when you were in this state, you may characterize the state as:

  • Total concentration & focus
  • High skill — every action was deliberate. You knew exactly what to do next.
  • You forgot yourself and in fact, you forgot the time
  • You engaged in the activity for its intrinsic value, not external value
  • You felt fulfilled at the end of the activity
  • You felt more energetic at the end of the activity even though you were involved in the activity for a long time

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an American psychologist recognized the above state and called it “flow”. He defines flow as a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove.

This is an important observation and we will revisit this in the next section.

Example #4: Deep sleep state

The deep sleep (no dream sleep state) gives us important clues about happiness. In deep sleep, we are unaware of anything happening around us. Our body is in hibernation. Our sense organs are hibernating — we don’t hear or see or feel any touch. Our mind is shut down — we don’t feel any emotions. Our intellect is shut down — there are no thoughts. In deep sleep, we are in a state of bliss. We experience happiness no matter how our awake state was. The deep sleep state of a rich man is no different than that of a poor man. A patient in the ICU of a hospital, holding on to his life and struggling to pay his hospital bills still enjoys bliss in deep sleep.


Do you see a pattern in the above analysis?

  1. The happiness that results (even if temporarily) is not due to the external object.
  2. Happiness seems to result from a fulfilled, pleased, satisfied mind
  3. Happiness seems to result when I am present and deeply involved in an activity for its intrinsic value — i.e, my mind is focused and not distracted (the Flow state)
  4. Happiness seems to be related to a still mind

This is an important insight. This means that my happiness is in my own mind. It is not dependent on any external object, situation, people, etc. This means that if we can train our minds to relate or perceive external objects in a different way than we do today, we can be happy irrespective of what situation we find ourselves in.

We can now rewrite the Happiness Equation as:

Happiness ~ F(pleasant, satisfied, fulfilled, present, still mind)

My happiness is in my own mind and hence in my control

This is a very important insight. Please pause here and reflect on this. We still haven’t defined what happiness is but we are getting close.


Why is this insight important? Because it makes us question our earlier beliefs. Our effort towards anything depends on what we believe in, isn’t it? As long as we believe that our happiness depends on external factors, our efforts will be directed towards changing the external factors (or the lack thereof) — places, things, jobs, houses, people, etc. We will continue to blame external factors and our efforts go into fixing the external factors. We change situations, houses, people hoping to fix the dissatisfaction. This is a futile exercise and we continue spinning endlessly on the hamster wheel. With this insight, the happiness problem now can be solved by focusing on changing ourselves in a new internal dimension which is within our control.

As we internalize the insight that my happiness and unhappiness are in my mind, we direct our efforts towards ourselves. We start our inward journey. This is the beginning of our spiritual path.

The Theory

We systematically analyzed and established that happiness (and unhappiness) is in our minds and not related to anything external. But we have not yet defined happiness. To do this, we need to reach into philosophy. We lean on insights from our ancestors — spiritual geniuses — who gave us Yoga, Vedanta, and Vipassana. These teachings from more than 3000+ years ago are very relevant more than ever before.

In the 2nd sutra of the Yoga Sutras, Sage Patanjali shocks us by defining Yoga very succinctly and elegantly as:

yogas chitta vritti nirodhah (1.2)

Yoga is the cessation of the modifications in the mind. The stillness of mind is Yoga! Yoga is defined as the ability to focus the mind on one thing (one-pointedness) and hold this state without distractions. This concentration is described as the peaceful flow of the mind when it has been freed from the fluctuating states of the mind or vrttis. I must add here that there is so much packed into this sutra that commentaries of this sutra run into pages.

What happens when we achieve stillness? Sage Patanjali follows up this sutra with another brilliant one:

tada drastuh svarupe ‘vasthanam (1.3)

When that is accomplished, the seer abides in its own true nature.

Our true Self

The yogic view of a human being

To understand this better, we need to understand what Patanjali is referring to as “the se-er”. Yoga and Vedanta state that there is a consciousness principle beyond our body, mind, and intellect. This principle is the real you, the Self. Yoga refers to this principle as Purusha. Vedanta refers to it as Atman. Others may call it Soul or Being or Spirit or something else. It doesn’t matter what you call it.

Vedanta defines the Atman principle as Sat-Chit-Ananda: Existence, Pure consciousness, Bliss.

Yoga defines Purusha as Nitya-Suchi-Sukhi-Atma (Eternal, Pure, Blissful, Indivisible).

Sutra 1.3 can be read thus:

When we achieve stillness in mind, we establish ourselves in our real Self, Purusha, Atman, which is pure consciousness and bliss.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the details of Purusha/Atman. I highly recommend looking up the references described later in this article to go deeper into the topic. But I will leave you with something to think about.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

If you think about your childhood and then youth and the present, do you see that even though the body has changed from a young boy or girl to a man or woman, the mind and intelligence has evolved from childhood to present, there is a constant “I” that seems to be present? We understand change only in relation to something static, isn’t it? We see time progress in a clock only because the clock face is static. Do you agree? Likewise, since we can see the relative change from our childhood to our present, there must be something static that is beyond the changing states of body and mind. This constant, static Self (the clock face in the above metaphor) can be understood as the Purusha or the Atman or our true Self.

The key takeaway is that when we achieve and maintain stillness in mind, our true nature, which is happiness, bliss shines through. This is the happiness that we feel in our mind and body.

Stillness reveals our true nature, which is happiness itself

A couple of metaphors help us understand this better. In The Bhagavad Gita, the still mind is compared to the flame of a candle that is placed in a windless place (Chapter 6, 19th verse).

Photo by Henrique Ferreira on Unsplash

The second metaphor is that of a lake. If the lake is muddy and has waves on the surface, it is impossible to see the bottom of the lake. On the other hand, when all the sediments have settled down and there are absolutely no waves on the surface, we can see the bottom of the lake. A light placed on the lake floor will shine right through. A still mind is like this calm lake. When the mind is still (no waves on the surface) and pure (no sediments), our real nature (the bottom of the lake) is revealed and the real nature is happiness.

The happiness equation can again be rewritten as:

Happiness is our true nature. We are happiness.

The Buddha explained enlightenment as the absence of suffering. In the same way, we can explain happiness as the absence of unhappiness. Our scriptures emphatically state that our true nature is happiness/bliss/joy. When the body, mind, and intellect are still, there is no unhappiness and we are established in our true nature, which is happiness.

Up Next …

We started with our initial Happiness equation and systematically worked our way through observation, analysis, logic, and inference. We finally arrived at a new happiness equation which rests the happiness entirely on us, not anything external.

  1. People, places, things, money, fame, etc do not give us absolute happiness.
  2. Happiness is our true nature and it results from the stillness of the mind

We also briefly looked at what the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita state about this topic.

Having tackled the above, the next set of questions are:

  1. What causes our minds to be agitated (thereby losing stillness)?
  2. How can we achieve stillness of the mind and hence happiness for a longer period? Is it possible to achieve stillness of the mind permanently?

These are discussed in Part 2: Understanding stillness

We saw that:

Happiness results from a fulfilled mind.

Fulfilled mind results when there are no more desires.

But, how can I not desire anything?

Should I not be ambitious and try for that promotion?

Should I not provide a good lifestyle for my family?

Should I not wish to be wealthy?

Should we not appreciate things, situations, places that give us pleasure?

Do I need to give up everything and become a monk to be happy?

Hold on to these questions as it will be addressed in Part 2.


I am a student and practitioner of Yoga and Vedanta. I learn The Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the scriptures by listening to the audio classes conducted by Swami Paramarthananda, Swami Guruparananda, and Swami Sarvapriyananda. I owe what little I understand to these great teachers. Any mistake in the analysis is the result of my limited understanding. While I am not eligible to teach, I can point people in the general direction, show a trail map based on my own experience. Ultimately, you need to be a seeker, learn from a teacher, and walk the trail yourself.

I also pay my deepest respect to the lineage of gurus and commentators like Adi Shankaracharya. It is through their commentaries that we have been able to unlock the teachings from the Upanishads, Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and many other spiritual texts.


The Bhagavad Gita — lectures by Swami Paramarthananda and Swami Guruparananda

Yoga Sutras — Swami Guruparananda

The teaching of the Bhagavad Gita — Swami Dayananda Saraswati

Brahmavidya Abhyasa — Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali — Dr. Edwin Bryant

Power of Now — Eckart Tolle

Vedanta Talks — Swami Sarvapriyananda

Shanti Mantra

asato mā sadgamaya,

tamaso mā jyotirgamaya,

mṛtyor mā’mṛtaṃ gamaya,

Om shanti shanti shanti hi.

— —

From falsehood lead me to truth,

From darkness lead me to the light,

From death lead me to immortality.

Om peace, peace, peace



Kishore Subramanian

Spiritual seeker, student, and practitioner of Yoga and Vedanta. Vice-President, Engineering at Propel. Ex-Googler.