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The Psychology of Happiness

When I was young, whenever anyone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, “I want to be happy”. And that was it. That was all I wanted. Whatever that meant. Whatever path I had to take to get happy, I was willing and ready.

My society made it seem as if happiness is the ultimate pursuit of life. And to feel sadness or any kind of discomfort means you have failed to reach your purpose in life. The irony of this approach to life creates more unhappiness, feelings of inadequacy, and insecurity that all too often lead to depression.

To add insult to injury in the pursuit of happiness, our society tells us mostly self-serving activities produces happiness like entertainment, drinking, and other things that are bad for us. And ultimately, pursuits that claim to produce happiness usually leave us feeling empty and unwell.

In direct contrast to the commonly held belief that happiness comes from superficial activities, psychologists have found that people who approach life through their spirituality or faith experience more happiness than those who believe that happiness comes from more shallow pursuits.

People who have strong faith or focus on spirituality report being “’very happy’, have a longer life, have a lower risk of depression and suicide, be more resilient, be more faithful in relationships, have happier children and be more satisfied with their family life”. (Source)

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Faith and spirituality contribute to happiness in many ways, some that may even seem paradoxical.

Focus on Others

“Whoever relieves a believer’s distress of the distressful aspects of this world, Allah will rescue him from a difficulty of the difficulties of the Hereafter. Whoever alleviates [the situation of] one in dire straits who cannot repay his debt, Allah will alleviate his lot in both this world and in the Hereafter. […] Allah is helping the servant as long as the servant is helping his brother.” (Muslim)

As Muslims, we know that if we want good for ourselves then we should first think about doing good for others. There is a lot of joy to be had in helping others and building a good and stable community through outreach to those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Giving can make us realize how much we really have and promotes a feeling of fulfillment.

Giving is better than receiving on every level. Richard Ryan, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, says, “A lot of times we think that happiness comes about because you get things for yourself. [But] it turns out that in a paradoxical way, giving gets you more, and I think that’s an important message in a culture that’s pretty often getting messages to the opposite effect.” (Source)


{[…] By the soul and (by) Him who made it perfect, and then inspired it to understand what is wrong and what is right for it. Truly is successful the one who purifies (his soul).} (Quran 91: 7-9)

As Muslims, we are taught to always be struggling against our whims. To struggle against laziness to get up and pray, against hunger to fast, against anxiety to have patience and so on. But this struggle against our own whims leads us to feeling more centered after praying, feeling more at peace after fasting, and feeling gratification after having patience.

But isn’t struggle bad for you because it produces stress? Not always. According to NBC News, “researchers are probing the upside of stress. Some believe short-term boosts of it can strengthen the immune system and protect against some diseases of ageing like Alzheimer’s by keeping the brain cells working at peak capacity.” (Source)

Being Thankful

{And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]} (Quran 14:7)

Islam teaches us to be thankful, to understand that we will never be happy with having more if we aren’t even happy with what we already have. But if we can truly reach a state of gratitude for what we have, we will truly feel fulfilled and at ease.

According to the Huffington Post, “PhD. Robert A. Emmons recently conducted a study on gratitude at UC Davis which proved measurable benefits on psychological, physical, and interpersonal health for subjects who practice gratitude. Most interestingly, he wrote that ‘Evidence on gratitude contradicts the widely held view that all people have a ‘set-point’ of happiness that cannot be reset by any known means.’” (Source)


After spending my youth searching for happiness in self-centered activities, and only finding emptiness, I came to Islam. And through my faith, I shifted my focus from helping myself to helping others, from wanting more to being thankful for what I have, from pleasing myself to pleasing my Creator.

This shift in focus had a monumental and hugely positive impact on my life, my outlook, and level of happiness.

I finally reached my goal of being happy, and it was through a path I never would have expected: Islam.

(From Discovering Islam archive)

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.