It’s strange to write an article about happiness during a global pandemic, when thousands are dying by the day, families and businesses are being stretched thin or breaking all together, and the cracks of society are glaring at us in the face. Yet, it seems like there is no better time than when our values, relationships, and goals are being challenged, and all we have is time to understand what gets us out of bed.

The quest to measure happiness has been philosophized for centuries. It’s impossible to find one perspective that doesn’t contradict another. As a person who has been asking this question for a decade, I come with my own biases on the matter. I am a student of cultural research, have spent a year in a Buddhist country, and am a citizen of a democratic country that favors individuality, entrepreneurship and freedom.

I aim to explore the morals and mantras that people are encouraged to adopt as a society, where these derive from, and how these contradict themselves, making it hard to achieve happiness. While I believe our species to be communal and nurturing, we are also greedy and insatiable. Can one truly be content? Is happiness fleeting? Do we have control over our brains anyway?

In today’s world, how many times have you been told to try a meditation app, yoga class, or self-help book? Encouraged to help you find a sense of self awareness or balance. Health and wellness plays into the innate desire to understand oneself in the context of others and the concept and industry has cycled into the mainstream.

Interested to understand connections between society, wellness, identity and happiness, I surveyed 50 people from the United States, India and Canada for flavor. Inquiring about health and wellness practices, dinner conversations, free will versus fate. It seemed natural to question whether perspectives had changed as many hit second months of stay-at-home orders.

Through this, I’ll share a quick history lesson on religion, culture, and psychology, all large schools of thought that have led to today’s multitude of opinions. Plus a look into the thriving wellness industry, and the results on how people are feeling right now. Hopefully, this can bring some entertainment during an insane time to be alive.


Over the course of history, there have been pillars of thought meant to provide humans with a playbook to live a fulfilled life. Many monotheistic religions have maintained a footing in culture for thousands of years, while predating and circumventing those major religions are beliefs of polytheism, paganism, deities, zodiac and auspicious dates, star readings and more.

The purpose of religions past and present are to organize society through creating behaviors and practicing specific morals to connect people with a spiritual element. And of course - what or who the exact spiritual element is, and which specific behaviors and morals to follow are up for a debate. But, I’d argue that all religions play a role towards fulfillment. Whether aiming for a peaceful after-life, reincarnation, or to decompose as a tree, eating meat or none at all, a religious person lives with inherited guidance.

The core of Christian value is to be kind and unselfish. Judaism preaches acts of love and kindness and taking care of your neighbor. Islam ethics want humans to command good and forbid evil. And Buddhists practice compassion, patience, and generosity. Doesn’t it seem like all of these philosophies kind of just want people to be nice?


Alongside religion is everything else in society: familial structure, traditions, art, environment, storytelling, business, economics and politics. Knowing that today derives from a faithful world with multiple gods and holidays, it's no surprise that differences arose in other aspects of life as well, filtering into the 21st century.

By the Industrial Revolution, class disparity, globalization and colonialism were deeply entrenched in culture. The fracturing of society and displacement of people had begun. With technological innovations and the rise of institutions and livelihoods, people became less and less organized over time, looking for fulfillment and guidance outside of religion.

Without taking you through a sub-par history lesson through the 1900s to the Internet - we land in 2020 where prior to Covid-19, our world was in hyperdrive. Culture as we are living it today snakes between an incredible desire to be seen as unique, with 86% of young Americans aspiring to be a social media influencer, while also being part of a community.

I took a philosophy of happiness class in 2010, in which I was taught that it was hard for social scientists to come up with a universal research method to define global happiness. The reason being that they couldn’t find a set of questions that worked for all cultures.

Not all places value happiness in the way that the United States does, as an individual right. In other countries, happiness can be misconstrued as selfish or lazy. Western cultures often find happiness as fleeting, a day-to-day measurement, while Eastern cultures view happiness with a big picture lens, related to overall stability.

The World Happiness Report employs well-being surveys that let people evaluate their own happiness, in contrast to The Economist’s Global Liveability Index, which imposes global standards and indicators. What they ask is, “Imagine that life is a ladder, with the bottom rung being the worst life you can imagine and the top rung being the best life you can imagine. Where are you on the ladder?”

So, the fascination continues with can there be a universal definition and measurement of happiness? Does there need to be?


I am not a psychologist and I have limited experience with mental health. But, as life is more and more on display through social media, the news, movies, television, books, and art, it is impossible to consider the idea of happiness without thinking about brain chemistry, nature versus nurture, fate versus free will, and what makes someone... themselves.

Perhaps it is an unpopular opinion to say that the zodiac, personal tests, and philosophies derived from Buddhism, like meditation, are offshoots of psychology. Why am I this way? Take this quiz to find out. Why am I that way? Look at your birth sign. How can I control my moods? Try pinpointing your stresses and anxieties. The ability to understand oneself is capitalized on to sell classes and products.

But, at the core of this is an epic debate is whether you are result of your genes or your environment. Are we simply at the whim or our serotonin and dopamine levels?

To make this even more complicated, both religion and science present ideas of fate. For the inexplicable moments, good and bad - humans blame the unbelievable on fate. Some Quantum physicists say “It appears that we have little control over our lives. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still be willing participants in our own experiences.”

Thankfully for you, I will not try to explain any aspect of physics to you, except that there are things we as humans may never know and spend forever arguing over.

Enter, the wellness industry.


I’m not saying that health and wellness is akin to a new religion or culture, but what if it is? The top wellness brands use phrases and words that inspire togetherness and daily practice.

Peloton’s website includes words like “community”, “motivation”, and “potential”, Tough Mudder advertises “Let’s do a million acts of kindness”, SoulCycle tells people “Move your body, find your soul", and Weight Watchers promotes “Healthy Habits." Consider, 300 million people practice yoga around the world, while there are 14 million Jewish people in the world. The 1.4 million who participate in Peloton classes from their homes give a new meaning to community.

Wellness at its core is for the individual. The benefit of a stronger you is a better you for your relationships and career. An idea not unlike faith.

Today the wellness industry is a $4.2 trillion dollar global industry, growing 12.8% from 2015-2017. Wellness includes wellness tourism, traditional medicine, beauty and care, fitness and mind-body, spa and thermal, mineral springs, nutrition and weight loss, personalized medicine, workspace wellness and real estate wellness (yes that’s a thing).

“Once upon a time, our contact with wellness was occasional. But this is changing fast: a wellness mindset is starting to permeate the global consumer consciousness, affecting people’s daily decision-making – whether food purchases, a focus on mental wellness and reducing stress, incorporating movement into daily life, environmental consciousness, or their yearning for connection and happiness,” noted Katherine Johnston, senior research fellow, GWI. “Wellness, for more people, is evolving from rarely to daily, from episodic to essential, from a luxury to a dominant lifestyle value. And that profound shift is driving powerful growth.”

And it is dominant. On average in 2019, people say they spent 3.4 hours a week on emotional wellness. Church goers on Sunday attend for an average of 70 minutes.


In my survey of 52 people from the United States (84%), India and Canada (16%), I was eager to see how people self identified themselves, and the lens from which they navigated their life. Did the centuries of religious messaging and cultural thought stand strong? What of the wellness industry was keeping people sane during Covid-19? Were there differences between those oriented towards the individualistic or community mindset? It was a pretty loaded questionnaire, which I was elated to see people answer.

To begin, I was curious to know how people self identified. By a landslide, 65% identified themselves by their career or role and 40% by their upbringing. Only 22% by their gender or nonconformance to one, 14% by their race or ethnicity, 10% by their family role, 8% by their health, 6% by their religion or spiritual belief, 4% by their socioeconomic status or interests.

At first, I was interested in picking apart health and wellness exercises and whether or not these leaned towards community building or individual exercises, but when Covid-19 lockdown started, an opportunity arose to see if anything had changed.

When asked about their preferred health and wellness practice (note people could choose up to 3 options) pre and during Covid-19, there wasn’t a large difference in preference. Majority of participants exercise, practice yoga, meditate, lean to a creative outlet and engage in therapy. That barely changed. Slightly more people found themselves looking for creative outlets and giving to charity while significantly less people turned towards personality tests, tarot and astrology. Overall, nothing surprising.

I also thought it would be interesting to know if the topic of conversation had changed over dinner, because I know mine have.

In 2019, typical dinner conversations were about politics, work and friends.

But throughout the first 2 months of Covid-19, dinner topics flipped. There was a 700% increase in participants who discussed health and the economy over dinner. Politics, family and work shifted slightly, and there was a huge drop in discussing relationships and cultural going ons. Absolutely no one discussed travel plans over dinner in the last 2 months.

These trends make sense, as institutions closed shop and people have stayed home, with no timeline to make future plans against, it’s been a tremendous shift in mentality.

The questionnaire went on to a series of true and false questions curious about peoples internal motivations.

Fulfillment derives from putting others first: 64%

Fulfillment derives from putting yourself first: 36%

Your life course is a matter of free will: 71%

Your life course is a matter of fate: 29%

You define your life and the freedom of how you intend to live it: 66%

Your life is defined by your past and ties to shared history: 34%

From these answers, I looked for a correlation between people who had identified themselves as an individual (by career, gender) or based on shared ties (religion, upbringing, familial role, socioeconomic status) though these classifications are not mutually exclusive.

For those who chose career, there were clear connections to the individual. 75% believe life is a matter of free will, and 72% said life is defined by your own intention. For those who chose to identify by their upbringing, these answers were closer to 50/50.

Looking at fate and free will alone, 71% believe life is a matter of free will. That group also leaned heavily into the belief that life is defined by your intention to live it (63%), and that fulfillment comes from putting others first (65%). For those who believe in fate still leaned in the same majority, but closer to 50/50 again.

In the context of wellness, culture, psychology and religion, these answers add up nicely with moral code. Most believe that helping others is more fulfilling than helping yourself, and most believe that you have the freedom to have take control of your life.

And finally, when asked to define happiness, a clear pattern was visible between 3 types of answers - Contentment, Freedom, and Smile.

Not unlike the true and false statements, these answers come out in many religious doctrines and health and wellness brands. Start with the luxury of the freedom to do and be, which leads to finding contentment, and dispersed throughout, spread joy to others with a smile.

  • 55% of people said that happiness meant “contentment”, “fulfillment” or “balance”.

  • 27% of definitions incorporated the word “freedom", an idea of choice and optionality.

  • 17% or surveys included the word “smile”, resembling outward acts of kindness.

I was thrilled to find a pattern in these definitions, and delighted that though there is much debate over measuring happiness as a whole, the idea of what happiness means - kinda universal.


If you’ve made it to the end, thank you.

I’m content with this research project. I’m thankful for the freedom to ask questions of strangers and friends, and to have the time to do this at my leisure during a pandemic. I hope it makes people smile, either because I’m trying to casually suggest all religions and the gym are the same, or because it makes you think and have something to talk about at dinner.

Personally, I find the contradictions and similarities that all cultural organizations teeter back and forth between immensely interesting.There’s a lot of mixed messaging going on. And of course, in the age of information and fragmentation, the discrepancies of what someone has, does or believes versus what you have, do and believe can often lead to a sense of longing and envy. It makes sense that there continues to be a need for moral guidance and self reflection.

As we navigate a global crisis and the effects it has on our minds and bodies, as well as our communities, I sincerely hope we all find contentment, that we are thankful for our freedoms, however limited, and that we help make people smile (even with a mask on).