How do we rate happiness?

“Hey, Khush.”
When Ma calls on the phone, she calls me Happiness. I already have a nickname – it is a flower – but now she addresses me by who she wants me to be. Happiness, in our family, is a presence, one that nudges us aside to make room for itself.

Smiling releases dopamine into our bloodstream. Funnier people are more attractive. Laughter yoga invigorates. I get the appeal. And yet when we speak on the phone, Ma searches my voice for bliss, and when my voice grows quiet, she worries. So really, her joy is dependent on mine.  Papa has a different approach. In Yarn, I wrote about our family meetings, packed with agendas that bounced from one inbox to the next. As much as I dreaded these meetings, I secretly enjoyed the conversations around happiness.

“On a scale of one to ten,” Papa said, “how happy are you?” “But we aren’t in one state all the time,” my philosophical brother said, “happiness levels are constantly changing. Like us.”

But we humoured Papa anyway. This was the one time all week that we sat together. Happiness seemed a harmless enough topic. No passive aggressive violence would arise “Seven,” my brother said, “seven points five.” Papa clapped and we followed. Papa looked at me.

“I don’t know. Seven I guess.” Yesterday, I had felt like a one, an hour ago I had felt like a ten, and now I was around a four. But my brother got applause and I wanted some too. Papa didn’t disappoint. Next, he looked at Ma.

“A three.” My father’s face went from a ruddy brown to a ruddy brown mixed with cement. “What? Why? Is everything okay?” No applause was given for honesty.

I remember our discussions fondly because now, we were all adults. Now, Ma and Papa didn’t just tell us what to do. They asked us what we thought. My brother and I, in turn, no longer expected our parents to have all the answers. In short, I believed this time – when I was 32 and my brother was 28 and Ma was 59 and Papa 62 – was a golden age for our family. We no longer expected perfection from each other. We expected to understand. But any expectation, once it’s born, can disappoint.

With myself, I know which fears drive my actions. With myself, I am patient. With my parents, not so much. Understanding, then, is like wine. Or my grandmother’s mango pickle. It needs air, it needs proportion, and it needs time. My parents know this more than anyone. They created a living thing from their bodies, raised her and fed her, tolerated her tantrums, trained her on how to be an acceptable member of society, and then they let her go. I wonder what was hardest for them – the creation, the tolerance, or the letting go. I wonder what made them happiest – the feeding, the training, or the letting go. Either way, they are remarkable people. Reader, allow me to introduce them to you.

Ma has a beautiful smile, a sharp mind, and a silver bob of hair. Her fingers are long and her hands are soft. She smells like lotion and has a weakness for shoes. And when we meet once a year for one month, she squeezes my hand, as if pressing 11 months of stories into my skin.

Papa, as you know by now, is obsessed with happiness. He talks about it at family meetings. He also talks about it in his yoga classes. Along with happiness, Papa is obsessed with justice, so it’s no wonder that he began his yoga career by combining his two obsessions. He called his yoga classes Happy Living With Justice. Papa is fond of sweets, especially, the ones Ma hides in the pantry.

Writing about my parents doesn’t always evoke parenthood. Right now, as I described them, I thought of them as partners, as friends who understand each other. That kind of understanding, the kind that Ma and Papa have of each other, is the kind parents and their children are seldom granted, especially in South Asian families where age is associated with wisdom.

But what if that didn’t hold true? What if regardless of your age, you were just as confused because that was your first time being that age? Maybe parents and children can be lost together, sitting around a table, rating our happiness on a scale of one to ten. But this time, no applause.

Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and the author of two books, More Than a Memory and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir. You can follow her work at


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