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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

"Are you happy?" Handling the most annoying question in the world

“Are you happy?”… What do you say when asked this question? Do you gush about how awesome everything is in your life? Do you enumerate your blessings and make a point of how lucky you are? Or do you blink and mumble something to change the subject? If you don’t know how to answer, you are perfectly normal.

As someone with imposter syndrome, the question has always raised the hair on the back of my neck. Plus, coming from Algeria where one isn’t supposed to attract attention to one’s good fortune but bond through existential despair, the question seemed almost nonsensical. Of course, it can be asked out of genuine concern for your wellbeing. But it is often taken as a legimate question to measure and compare success in life. However… The question itself is flawed. Why? Because it suggests that happiness is a fixed state that one reaches and stays at. What’s more external circumstances don’t correlate directly to your inner-state.You’ve probably had the phases in life where you have everything you wanted, people admire or envy you, yet you don’t feel “happy” – something is missing. The same set of circumstances can be viewed positively by one person and negatively by another; and whatever feeling you might have is fleeting anyway: as soon as you get the job/income/thing you wanted, doubts and dissatisfaction rear their ugly heads again. This is something very common among high achievers including the people I work with (and something I’ve faced myself). Usually, you move onto the next thing…It’s as if something is driving you on autopilot. You can see where you’re headed, you’re not sure you want to go in that direction, yet you can’t stop it… If you’re lucky you hit a crisis when you have to start re-examining your assumptions about life. If you’re unlucky, you spend the rest of your life living with that nagging feeling that something isn’t right. I’m glad my autopilot didn’t affect my health but I did have to do some deep digging emotionally and psychologically to reach a point of balance from which I could take control of my life and career again. The truth is, happiness is a practice. As age old spiritual traditions have told for millennia, the art of living is in cultivating a better relationship between our perception of the world and the world itself. It’s in constantly upgrading the filter through which we view and experience life. If you’re reading this, you probably have an inkling that nothing out there can make you “happy”, certainly not permanently happy. Sure a nice home and living conditions can make you more comfortable and relieve pain, or beautiful clothes or cars can bring you momentary satisfaction or an experience of pleasure. But the feeling they give you is temporary. Your life and your emotions are constantly changing. However, it is possible to be more deeply and consistently connected to a sense of aliveness and optimism. The feeling of aliveness is what you might confuse with “happiness”. But it doesn’t come from external conditions, possessions or achievements. It comes from an orientation to life: identifying your values and living in alignment with them. The sense of aliveness requires that you take risks, that you step out of your comfort zone on a daily basis and engage with the world with fresh eyes moment-to-moment using your values and emotions as a compass. The creative cycle of risk-taking, learning, reward and rest bring that zing that many of us miss when we settle into routines. Yes, but what do you say if someone asks if you’re happy? OK, Here’s what I would do:

1. Smile! If the person is asking, it’s likely that they are struggling with this issue themselves

2. Thank them for asking this profound question and showing concern for your wellbeing

3. Ask them if there is a reason for their question (interesting insights and conversation could come from this)

4. Say that you’ve thought about this a lot and come to a simple conclusion: that happiness is a practice (or whatever conclusion you want)

5. Share an area of your life that is bringing you a lot of joy at the moment, and the things you are doing to live life the way you want to.

For example, I personally would talk about the joy that my coaching work brings me because I value contribution, genuine relationships and wisdom. It’s such a pleasure for me to see a client carving a more rewarding role for themselves in their organisation or daring to explore new horizons and finding that great opportunities exist for them where they were afraid to look.

6. Ask them what they think!

If in doubt, use the media training approach and remember you don't have to answer the question being asked. You can answer the one you think is most important and give the information that you want to share. Remember also that there is usually a question behind the question and engaging at this level can make things a whole lot more interesting!..Give it a try next time you're asked a tricky question. Until next week,

Amina Aitsi-Selmi I help high achievers who feel stuck to take a big leap and get to their next level in life and work. Trying to work out how to create a life and career you love without chasing dead end rainbows? Book a life changing (free 60 minute) conversation here: Questions, comments or interest in Transformational Coaching? Email me on

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