Originally published October 2013.
*Update* Disclaimer: This article does not deal with clinical depression. While some of the steps can be used as prevention, clinical depression is a mental illness that should be addressed by a trained professional. Any general references to ‘depression’ in the article refer to depression in regular parlance, and not as a medical term.
I was recently asked to give a talk entitled, “The Pursuit of Happiness.” I had a lot to say about the topic, and unfortunately was not able to deliver all of it. This topic is really important in general, but especially in this day and age where we find many people suffering from depression/melancholy at some point in their life.
What is Happiness?
Most Americans are familiar with the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—rights enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But in order to talk about the pursuit of happiness, we need to know what happiness is.
It turns out that happiness is a little hard to define. We all know what it is, and we know when we are happy, but it is difficult to put into words because it is so experiential. It is one of these things that is an end in and of itself; people want things in order to be happy, whether it is wealth, health, or a dream we want to achieve. Wikipedia’s definition states that “Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” Psychologist Ed Diener, author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, describes it as a combination of life satisfaction and having more positive emotions than negative emotions.
Most of us would think that we would be “happy” if we were able to obtain some life achievement, or that our happiness would disappear if we lost our home in a fire (God forbid). But psychologists have found that after some period of adjustment, we actually go back to our previous level of happiness, no matter what happens to us. So happiness is a state that we can cultivate that does not have to be permanently affected by the things that happen to us externally. The more we work on our happiness, the easier it is to come back to it after times of hardship.
We all know people with very little wealth who appear to be happy, and others who are very wealthy but are very unhappy. While some of it can be genetic, tweaking these external variables does not necessarily permanently change the level of happiness. Therefore, there must be something else.
In an article by the Mayo Clinic, they stated that “only 10 percent or so of the variation in people’s reports of happiness can be explained by differences in their circumstances. It appears that the bulk of what determines happiness is due to personality and — more importantly — thoughts and behaviors that can be changed.”
So we all know that happiness is not simply a giddy feeling that we get now and then. It is something more. Happiness can be described as a general state of contentment, or redha.
Sa’ad bin Abi Waqqas, radi Allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him), who is one of the ten Companions promised paradise, said to his son: “If you ask for wealth, then ask for contentment to accompany it. If contentment does not accompany it, then no money will satisfy you.”
The Pursuit of Happiness
There are two types “happinesses”: in Jannah (Paradise) and in this world. Jannah is a happiness that we pursue, it is the permanent happiness, where there is no fear or grief. And insha’Allah (God willing), everything that we do should be geared for that: the pleasure of God and Jannah.
But in this world, I do not believe in the pursuit of happiness. That is not because I do not believe in happiness in this world. It is quite the opposite. I just do not believe in pursuing it, because when we say we are pursuing happiness, we are implying that happiness is something that is outside of us and that it is out of reach, which is why we have to pursue it.
Yet Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala (exalted is He), has made happiness in this world easier than we think, because He made it something inside of us that is not necessarily dependent on the external. So we can pursue Jannah while being in a state of contentment in this world, or we can pursue it while being depressed—which one would you rather have? Which one will enable you to be more productive?
Do you think Allah (swt) wants you to be happy in this world?
The answer to this question matters greatly. If you think that you are meant to suffer, then that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every bad thing that happens becomes a moment of “Of course I knew this would happen, I have such terrible luck,” as opposed to something we learn from and grow as a result of. If we think Allah (swt) wants us to suffer, then we will only find closeness to Him in pain. This does not mean that we cannot find Allah (swt) in moments of pain – and pain does help to return us to Allah – but we should be able to go to Allah both in times of ease and in hardship. So does He want us to be happy in this world?
Happiness in the Life of a Believer
My argument is that Allah (swt) wants us to be happy in this world—especially when happiness is defined as a general state of contentment. Why do I say this? Our example, the Prophet ﷺ, was a balanced man. His general state was one of contentment. He was described as daa’im al-bushra, meaning he was always optimistic and happy. He was serious when times called for it, and that was to encourage reflection and accountability, and prevent frivolity.
Moreover, we are taught that the best thing to do is make others happy. The Prophet ﷺ said that the most beloved deed to Allah (swt) after the obligatory acts of worship is to bring joy to a fellow Muslim. He also said that what necessitates forgiveness from Allah (swt) is bringing joy to your brother (Tabarani). Finally he taught us that the only reward for bringing joy to an entire household is Paradise (Tabarani). When the Prophet ﷺ found out that a child’s pet bird had died, he went to play with him to make him forgot about his sorrow. If we are all busy making others happy, who is left to be sad?
When people accepted Islam, they would be overjoyed because they felt that Allah (swt) chose them. There is a closeness that comes with that. When we study Allah’s Names, we find that many of them are geared towards giving us some sort of comfort, such as as-Salaam (the Source of Peace), al-Jabbar (He who mends what is broken), al-Lateef (the Subtle and Kind), al-Fattah (the Opener) and others. Allah (swt) comforts the Prophet ﷺ when he was under distress. We are told we will find rest in the remembrance of Allah (swt). The Qur’an is filled with words of hope, which I will expand upon later. The Prophet ﷺ taught us that the affair of the believer is amazing because everything is good for him—when he sees good, he thanks God, and when he faces hardship, he is patient. If life was meant to solely be depressing, why would Allah (swt) give us the antidotes to sadness, despair and fear?
How to Be Happy
I started going through studies and articles written on happiness and what makes people happy. I found that the results were a combination of things, and most articles mentioned gratefulness, optimism, purpose, love, and doing good. All of these help us to reach a general state of happiness or contentment.
Interestingly, all of these are virtues taught to us in the Qur’an and by the Prophet ﷺ:
- Gratefulness: We are told in the Qur’an: “And if you should count the favors of Allah, you could not enumerate them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (Qu’ran, 18:18)[Unknown A1] . Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, we can realize that all of the blessings that we have can have a profound effect on our well-being. Instead of focusing on what we do not have, or the negative things that happened to us in a day, we should focus on what we have been given.
- Optimism: Every notice how some people just have good energy? They tend to be optimistic people that can see the good in situations where others only see negatives. Allah (swt) teaches us how to have this outlook, when He tells us “I am at my servant’s opinion of Me,” (Bukhari). If you think well of Allah, that is what you will find. So Allah is telling us that it is up to us. If we want to imagine a grumpy god that wants wickedness for the world, well, it is our own fault that that is what we see. But Allah (swt) encourages us to think well of Him—He is teaching us the Islamic outlook on life. He teaches us to be optimistic even in times of distress, when He says, “So verily, with the hardship, there is relief. Verily, with the hardship, there is relief,” (Qur’an, 94:5-6). Every hardship comes with at least two reliefs, so focus on the good that Allah (swt) gave you to help overcome the bad. Moreover, we are also reminded “But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not,” (Qur’an, 2:216). Being optimistic means not seeing simply the hardship, but what could be behind the hardship in terms of lessons, and seeing that it could be a good thing.
- Purpose: What is Islam about if not about defining our purpose? A recent UCLA study showed that the happiness that comes from having a deep sense of meaning and purpose in life can contribute to favorable gene-expression profiles. When you know what you are pursuing, it makes everything worth it. So think: who do you want to be? We all know we were sent worship God, but we also know that besides the basics that we are all required to do (such as prayers, fasting, alms-giving etc), we each are unique in the way that we seek closeness to Him. It could be through starting up an ethical business, dedicating our lives to be an amazing teacher, striving to be a wonderful parent, devoting our time to issues of social justice—anything.
- The best thing is, when you intend something, you will have it if you sincerely work for it even if you never get there. The Prophet ﷺ tells us about two people, one whom God has bestowed with wealth and knowledge, so he is able to spend that wealth in beneficial ways; and another who only has knowledge, but wishes that he had wealth in order to be able to do more. The Prophet ﷺ said that these people are rewarded exactly the same because we are rewarded in accordance to our intention. Allah (swt) is teaching us to dream big and to work hard, but to have a heart that is at rest because we know the result is with Him.
- Love: We all have people that love us. And it is important to foster good relationships with our family and friends. We are reminded again and again to have a good relationship with our neighbors, our close friends and our family. It is not only a duty, but also something that enriches our life. And even if we think we do not have anyone that loves us, then we should remember that Allah (swt) loves us. And we should not for a moment let shaytan (the Devil) tell us that this is not true. Why would Allah (swt) allow you to read these words of encouragement if He did not want what is best for you? And why would He want what is best for you if He does not love you?
Sadness is Normal Sometimes
This all might seem too easy. What about when things make us sad? Didn’t Allah (swt) say that He would test those He loves the most? So how can reconcile these things?
First, it is natural to have our down moments. The Prophet ﷺ was sad when he lost his son Ibrahim. He suffered many hardships as well. When Aisha (ra) asked him whether the Battle of Uhud was the most difficult thing he went through, he said that it was the abuse he was subjected to at Ta’if that was the worst. But notice that he would point out incidents or events that were hard, as opposed to saying, “My entire life is hard” or “This was something I never got over.”
Second, there is a difference between being tested externally and being defeated internally. Yes, Allah (swt) tests those He loves. But He only tests us with what we can bear. This means that the stronger we are internally, the more hardship we are able to bear. Allah (swt) does not aim to destroy you but to build you. If you are at peace, while you will be shaken by hardships, you will not be broken, like the prophets and the righteous. Your worldview will enable you to see the hardship for what it is: temporary.
So when things go wrong, let yourself be sad as opposed to bottling things up. The Prophet ﷺ wept for his son. Things bothered him sometimes. But that was not his general state. He did not dwell on his hardships. Rather, his healthy internal state allowed him return to his default, which was a state of gratefulness and optimism.
If you ever feel down or distressed, remember this du`a’ (supplication):
اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنْ الْهَمِّ وَالْحُزْنِ وَالْعَجْزِ وَالْكَسَلِ وَالْبُخْلِ وَالْجُبْنِ وَضَلَعِ الدَّيْنِ وَغَلَبَةِ الرِّجَالِ
Allahumma inni a’udhu bika minal-hammi wal-Ḥuzni wal-‘ajazi wal-kasli wal-bukhli wal-jubni wa ḍala’Īd-dayni wa ghalabatir-rijal.
O Allāh, I take refuge in You from anxiety and sorrow, weakness and laziness, miserliness and cowardice, the burden of debts and from being overpowered by men.
When we talk about happiness, it is easy to talk about the intangibles, but what are concrete ways to get there? I have compiled a list that I hope will help, Insha’Allah:
1. Realize that happiness is truly from within. Let go of holding onto to stress and fear, and realize that Allah (swt) gave you the power to affect your internal state. Allah says He is what we think of Him, so we need to live in accordance with that opinion and internalize that good opinion of Him.
2. Build hope and faith in Allah, and develop your relationship with Him: this is your asset and will get you through things. Study His Names, focus on connecting to Him through your prayers, reflect over the Qur’an and have secret good deeds that no one knows about but Him.
3. Develop yourself: No two days in the day of a Muslim should be the same. Learn new things. Read. Cultivate the “sound heart”. Work on your interpersonal skills. The Prophet ﷺ said that wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so we should be seeking wisdom in all its forms.
4. Smile: It’s a sunnah (tradition of the Prophet ﷺ) as we know, and psychological studies have shown that smiling can increase your happiness levels and lift your spirits. Fun study: Wayne State University scientists in Detroit concluded that those athletes who smiled more in their pictures lived on average seven years longer than those who did not.
5. Do good: There are countless ahadeeth (sayings of the Prophet) that encourage us to do good for others, without expecting anything for ourselves. The Prophet ﷺ gave his time in addition to his wealth to people who needed it. Allah (swt) says in the Qu’ran, “Indeed, those who have believed and done righteous deeds – the Most Merciful will appoint for them affection” (Qu’ran, 19:96). Meaning Allah (swt) will show His love for you! Moreover, one of Allah’s Names is ash-Shakoor; He appreciates and gives back even more than you put in when you do good!
A paper by Dr. Suzanne Richards and colleagues at the University of Exeter Medical School, Exeter, UK, found that, “volunteering is associated with lower depression, increased well-being, and a 22 percent reduction in the risk of dying.” Karen Reivich, Ph.D., a research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that happiness is “also feeling a connection to something larger than yourself. When people are in service to something bigger, they describe their lives as filled with meaning. It’s not the smiley face, but when it’s all over, you realize you’d do it again.”
6. Express gratitude: It is one thing to be grateful, and another thing to express it. Allah (swt) tells us “If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor],” (Qur’an, 14:7). You will be given more—materially—but also spiritually. There will be barakah, which means increase. For example, you have an hour to do things but find that you can do so much. You have little money but it is always enough for you. And gratitude is not just in expressing it to God. Remember that the Prophet ﷺ said, “whoever has not thanked people has not thanked God” (Abu Dawud). It applies with both the big things (showing your parents how much appreciate them) and with the small (simply saying thank you when the barista gives you your coffee). This short clip shows an experiment conducted on the link between expressing gratitude and people’s happiness, and is well worth the watch:
7. Sleep well: Remember that your body has a right over you. When a man came to the Prophet ﷺ saying that he prayed all night long, the Prophet ﷺ reminded him that his body and his family had rights over him. In the Qur’an, we are taught that Allah (swt) “…made your sleep [a means for] rest, And made the night as clothing, And made the day for livelihood” (78:9-11)
This really does not need a study, but studies have shown that bad sleep is detrimental to your mood, and of course, makes it hard to wake up in the morning. A University of Michigan study showed that just getting an extra hour of sleep at night has more of an effect on daily happiness than making $60,000 more in annual income!
8. Develop a relationship with your family: I put this as a separate point to the above because I feel that it requires extra focus. The Prophet ﷺ tells us, “The best of you are those who are best to their families,” (Tirmidhi). What we go home to also influences us. Many of us live with our parents, and we have heard countless talks about the obedience to parents. But our relationship with our parents is so much more than obedience, and characterizing the relationship in that way makes it rigid and dry. In the Qur’an we are told to “accompany them in [this] world with appropriate kindness and follow the way of those who turn back to Me [in repentance]” (31:15). The word is used is saahibhuma, which is from the root that gives us the word saahib: companion. Some of us may have difficult relationships with our parents, and so this part is extra hard if we feel disconnected from them. But remember, we are rewarded for our efforts. Find something in common between you. Maybe your mother enjoys reading and your father loves a certain sport. You can try to find those little things that will transform your relationship.
9. Eat well: Allah (swt) says: “O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess” (Qur’an, 7:31). While studies are not conclusive, there are links between what we eat and how it affects our mood in the long-term. It is most likely linked to overall health, but see this article and this one for “happy” foods.
10. Be fit: The Prophet ﷺ was fit and barely had a belly into his 60s. The sahaba, the Companions (ra) played sports. Allah (swt) created us in a certain way: you use your body well, and it will help you when you are old. A Duke University study suggested that moderate aerobic exercise has a longer and more lasting effect on mood than medication alone for people with depression. A Canadian study found that being physically active was associated with 85 percent higher odds of being happy and people who changed from being inactive to active were more likely to report feeling happy two and four years later.
11. Have discipline: Jaber bin Abdullah (ra), one of the companions, was carrying a piece of meat. “Umar saw him and said, ‘What is this Jaber?’ To which Jaber replied ‘I desired some meat so I bought it.’ Umar looked at him and said ‘And do you buy whatever you desire?’”
This last one might seem counter-intuitive. Getting whatever we desire should make us happy, right? Not according to a research study published in the Journal of Personality, which found that exerting self-control can make you happier both in the long-term and in the moment. Disciplined people are able to avoid situations of temptation, and therefore avoid situations in which their goals or morals would conflict. It is not simply about being in a situation and preventing yourself from acting on your lust, but it is, as Islam teaches, avoiding situations where there is a higher risk of desires taking control over you. The research concluded that these people are good managers, and experienced fewer negative emotions as a result. Moreover, being disciplined with our goals or even a little to-do list helps instill a sense of achievement, which in turn makes us more productive and happy.
May we all be believers with hearts filled with contentment!