Happy vs. Well: Considering Emotions in Our Wellness Journeys

Dana Bender
Dana Bender
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There are a wide variety of emotions that we can feel moment to moment based on what is happening around us. For example, happy, sad, excited, and angry are all emotional states that we can feel in any given passing moment or even all at the same time depending on the situation.

Although happiness is a positive emotional state that makes one feel and/or strive towards feeling, like all emotions, the feeling of happiness is temporary. All emotions do not last and instead pass by moment to moment. Instead of focusing on cultivating happiness, it is more important to focus on being well in our day to day.

Let’s go over what wellness is and how being happy is an element of our daily up and down wellbeing journey.

What is Wellness?

Bill Hettler, founder of National Wellness Institute defined wellness utilizing a holistic six-dimensional model. This model included the following six dimensions: emotional, social, physical, intellectual, occupational, and spiritual. According to the National Wellness Institute, wellness is thought of as a “conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving one’s full potential. It is positive, affirming, and contributes to a long and healthy life.”

According to the National Wellness Institute, focusing on all six dimensions helps individuals be well.  This philosophy implies that an individual’s personal wellness is a consequence of lifestyle choices, and the environment and social context around them. This approach also takes a holistic multi-dimensional approach to feeling well and living a quality life.

On a similar note, the American Psychological Association defines well-being as “a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life.” As you can see with these two definitions, the state of being well is a sustainable state of being rather than the transient emotion of happiness that is felt during a moment in time.

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What is Happiness?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines happiness as “an emotion of joy, satisfaction, and well-being.” Miriam Webster defines happiness as a “pleasurable or satisfying experience.” Although happiness is a positive emotion to experience in life, it is only one aspect of emotional well-being.  "Happy" is a moment in time and not a lasting state.

For example, an individual can be happy when they are enjoying a walk outside and NOT be well. Furthermore, an individual can be angry while stuck in traffic and very well in regards to their overall lifestyle and state of being. Although feelings of happiness are a good thing, happiness alone does not always equate to reduced mental stress and an ongoing, lasting state of contentment and joy.  

The positive psychology field understands this and does research what will help support happiness and build up the good aspects of life. In other words, positive psychology focuses on and emphasizes events that help cultivate positive emotions like happiness, joy, inspiration, and love. It also highlights positive states and traits such as compassion, resilience, and gratitude.

As this field of psychology demonstrates, being well is more than just experiencing the emotion of happiness. It is a deeper approach that supports psychological wellbeing and positivity in order to be well.  

Why is psychological wellbeing important? 

Psychological wellbeing is an essential component of cultivating a state of well-being in the day to day. An individual can exercise and eat well every day but not be “well” as it pertains to their self-talk and mindset. If these aspects suffer, an individual can experience negative emotions, self-detrimental behaviors, or longer-term mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

For these very reasons, psychological wellbeing is just as important as physical wellness behaviors such as exercising, eating, and sleeping well. According to Rick Hanson who wrote the book Rewiring Happiness individuals can continue to rewire their thoughts and beliefs about everyday experiences to emphasize the positive and cultivate happiness, confidence, and more.

Hanson believes and demonstrates in this book that people can leverage neuroplasticity, or the ability for the nervous system to change its response over time, to “take in the good.” This process can help enhance resiliency, emotional wellness, and feelings of happiness and contentment. What this tells us is that we can work towards improving psychological well-being over time which continues to strengthen and support being well.


How to be aware of the difference

It can be hard to tell the difference between feeling happy vs. feeling well. As a first step it is important to separate words that describe temporary emotions like happiness or sadness from lasting states of living a quality life of well-being.

Furthermore, to become more aware of the differences, it is important to pay attention mindfully to what you are experiencing moment to moment, and what situation is occurring that caused the positive emotion. Pay attention mindfully if the situation is temporary. Notice if the emotion subsides even a little bit as the context changes.

Notice and understand how you feel after the situation is no longer occurring. Ask yourself if you still feel content and joy within simple day to day experiences. The process of paying attention and knowing when emotions might pass, and what states stay constant, can help you better identify and distinguish between the feeling of happy vs. being well.


Even though happiness is a positive emotion to experience, it is not enough by itself. Instead, it is important to focus on being well. Cultivating a lifestyle rich in all six dimensions of wellness will help to create a sustainable, long-lasting state of well-being that enhances positive experiences in life. 

The Author

Dana Bender

Dana Bender

Dana Bender, MS, NBC-HWC, ACSM, E-RYT. Dana works as a Wellness Strategy Manager with Vitality and has 15+ years experience in onsite fitness and wellness management. Dana is also a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, an Adjunct Professor with Rowan University, an E-RYT 200 hour Registered Yoga Teacher, AFAA Group Exercise Instructor, ACSM Exercise Physiologist, and ACE Personal Trainer. Learn more about Dana at www.danabenderwellness.com.

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