ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Defining “Khushhali”

Well-Being in Interaction

The author’s interviews with 203 men and women in India show the usefulness of seeing well-being as arising in social interactions, rather than existing within the individual. He finds that people craft felicitous interactions with others that increase their own well-being and that of others in a self-reinforcing spiral.           

Narendra Sethi and Meenu Sharma assisted me in arranging, conducting, and translating interviews.  Two SUNY-Geneseo sabbaticals and a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad fellowship supported the research and writing. Delhi University hosted me in India. 



Above all, the human is a social being; friends should be social ones. This is the meaning of well-being. Millionaires are not poor and dirty, but without good friends, where is their well-being?                                                                                                   

–79-year-old Prakash Tyagi (names are pseudonyms) 

Because of his approach to living and his interactions with others, widower Prakash Tyagi has a zest for life despite debilitating illness and neglect by his family. Hobbled by illness and age, Prakash cannot walk far, but still enjoys smells, friends, and sights on a daily walk: “Distance in walking is more charming than the destination. Every morning brings a new elegance.” Prakash is guided by “maxims one can walk comfortably with,” including this: “if circumstances don’t smile on you, smile yourself on circumstances.” With his maxims, Prakash maintains equanimity. Well-being, Prakash says, “depends on attitude and temperament—on what we think and believe.”

Also neglected by his family, Ishwar Kumar, 80, walks with a cane and seems preoccupied. Prakash minimises his problems, focusing on each day’s “new elegance,” but Ishwar focuses on his poor health and frayed social ties, and remains grumpy: “To me there's no well-being. What can be the meaning of well-being for a man who is alone? I am living with my brother’s son! Because of my medical problems, I can’t move out of this city, further complicating my suffering.” Ishwar complains that living with his nephew, he has “no one to listen to in the home, no one with whom I can share my sorrows.”

While Ishwar rails about “living alone” in his nephew’s family, Prakash is neglected by family but still seeks out social connections and chooses to remember his lifelong wealth of social relations. Prakash remembers his grandfather’s support of his aspirations and his grandfather’s happiness at Prakash’s success in school. Prakash reflects that he “never felt alone” in his time with his late wife. “Because of her, my life has been very smooth, and I have never been in distress.”  Although Prakash told me he was a dying rose, he continues to seek out relationships—I may have been one of his last new friends. He says that the “happiest thing” is “doing something good for others every day.” Prakash’s daily interactions to do good for others supports his own well-being, too.

Although their circumstances are similar, Prakash has well-being—a sense of enduring life satisfaction—but Ishwar does not. Unlike Ishwar, Prakash has a meaningful approach to his hardships: “You’re human; never let despair, dejection or disappointment into your heart.” Rather than focusing on how his children have abandoned him, he remembers relationships with his grandfather and his wife and continues to seek out felicitous interactions with others, like me. One day he showed me a pyramid to illustrate his conclusions about well-being. At the base is “food, clothing and lodging, which are easily available”—lodging must include a “comfortable home, good books, and a small garden.”  The need for a “sound body provided by healthy surroundings” is midway up the pyramid.  At the top of the pyramid is “good company and sweet relations with family and friends.” The pleasant back-and-forth which Prakash initiated with me increased the well-being of each of us in a self-reinforcing spiral.

In 2007 and 2011, I asked 203 men and women of diverse ages, classes, castes, and religions to tell me about khushhali—the Hindi word I used to capture well-being, a sense of enduring life satisfaction. I interviewed urban people in Dehradun. I explored people’s subjective experiences of well-being. “What does khushhali mean to you?,” I asked. “Tell me about a time you experienced khushhali and a time you experienced an absence of khushhali.”

Indians recognise that material necessities, health, and social connections lead to well-being, confirming Prakash’s conclusions and those of survey researchers who address differing levels of well-being within a society.

My interviews also reveal that well-being does not primarily follow from circumstances or primarily rest within the individual, but is in interactions. Felicitous interactions the person cultivates increase that person’s well-being and that of others in a self-reinforcing chain of interactions. Shifting the focus from the individual to the interaction is the distinctively sociological contribution to understanding feelings of enduring life-satisfaction. 

Well-Being in Positive Interaction

Niranjan, a married 48-year-old executive, focuses on how sweet, supportive interactions provide well-being: “If we are attached to all and everyone is our best friend and we're good to all, khushhali automatically (apne ap) arises.”  For Niranjan, his own moods spread to others, rebounding back to himself: “If I am happy (khushi), everyone is happy. But if I’m unable to be happy myself, others won’t be happy and I will see all the people sad (dukhi).” For Niranjan, well-being has “nothing to do with whether a person is rich or poor; it has to do with whether a person remains happy and mast.” To be mast, is to be intoxicated with life, to have joie-de-vivre. “Whether one eats a roti or halwa puri, whether one is a millionaire or a labourer, everyone rises with the question ‘am I happy or not?’”

For Niranjan mixing with others helps overcome troubles. “If I have any problem I will share it with my brother,” Niranjan says, referring to my assistant Narendra Sethi, whom he has just met. “This gives satisfaction and happiness. And if there is any dukh (sorrow, grief), I will share that with him, too.” Niranjan describes family interactions as relieving stress: “With my bhabhi and with my sister, we share sukh (pleasure, joy) and dukh. There are a lot of relatives and this gives mental relief. There are a lot of visits, this sister comes, then that one. By visiting and exchanging views, the day-to-day stress-level is reduced (kam ho jana). If I am facing some tension or some problem and I am alone or lonely, the stress keeps on increasing due to not sharing with others, so I won't be able to remain khushi. My smiling face will look sullen (latkana, literally hanging) and I will keep on thinking. By sharing and cracking jokes, the stress level is automatically reduced and we forget our dukh.” Sharing sorrows dissipates sorrow. Cultivating one’s own mast makes others happy, increasing one’s own well-being.

Well-being operates in chains and connections. Positive interactions enhance vitality and well-being in self and other. For Niranjan, intensity of interactions produces well-being: “There are many moments we experience khushhali—with someone’s birthday, going in the barat (wedding procession), or whenever there is some function in the home. Going in a barat there is happiness in each step we take. We experience khushhali.” Niranjan’s brother was murdered after a kidnaping; Niranjan experienced unspeakable grief when he found his brother’s body. Still, when asked about ill-being in his life, Niranjan replies that while “there are some such moments where all of a sudden we get too much sorrow” the “social atmosphere in which we are always interacting helps us overcome that dukh.”

Sociological theorists starting with Durkheim (1912 [1915], 215) understood emotions are contagious, that a “sentiment” expressed “re-echoes” in “all the minds” of interacting individuals: “The initial impulse proceeds, growing as it goes, as an avalanche grows in its advance.” Randall Collins (2005) understood that interactions in which people reaffirm each other and express good feelings build mutual confidence, enthusiasm, and positive energy. Well-being, too, arises not from internal states or external circumstances but from interactions (even with the self) that build positive feelings, creating a sense of enduring satisfaction with life.

Sharing Joys and Sorrows

Sharing joys increases joy and (as Niranjan recognises) sorrow dissipates when sorrow (alongside joy) is shared with others. Girish, a 48-year-old office worker, says “being part of the sukh-dukh (joys and sorrows) of others (dusra)” gives him well-being. Sudhir, an 18-year-old lower-caste Hindu, describes khushhali as “spending time with friends and fulfilling my parents’ dreams.” When Sudhir’s mother recently died, he lost himself “completely. For two months, I didn’t study and remained alone. Then, my friends started to ask ‘what are you up to?’ and ‘where are you?’ I still get emotional remembering that time. Mixing (ghulna) with friends and talking to them supported me. Now I’m happy.” Echoing middle-aged Girish who has his own children, Sudhir, an 18-year-old student, says “I feel very good (bahut achcha lagna) sharing sukh-dukh with my friends.”

Lakshmi, a 43-year-old administrative worker, finds khushhali in times when she helps others, like when she helped an arthritic man to the hospital. “Friends,” she says, “should not just be there to pass time with. Sharing good and bad with your friends gives khushhali.” Gauri, a 69–year-old widow, is sometimes lonely living alone. For Gauri, well-being is “sharing sukh and dukh. Whether it’s friends or relatives, I want to sit and talk with them, sharing sukh and dukh.”

Indians Focus on Interactions                                                                                 

People of different religion, class, and age understand how interacting contributes to well-being.   Through positive interactions, the well-being of each mutually supports the well-being of others.

Armaan, a 65-year-old shopkeeper of Sikh background, enjoys watching cricket with friends and acquaintances, young and old. “My motto,” he says, “is to give enjoyment. If you’re good, everybody is good. If you’re happy, everybody is happy.” Lakshman, a 61-year-old Hindu retiree and part-time administrator, describes how happiness at home spreads: “If you’re happy in the home, then in every direction you’ll find happiness.” By contrast “hurtful words spread unhappiness.”  Lakshman recounts that because of his manager’s bad mood, his co-workers’ mood is bad, too.  “When you think like a thief, everyone will be a thief, while if you’re clean and happy, everyone will be clean and happy.”

A 19-year-old Hindu female student who wants to earn money to support poor people’s education says khushhali exists in good relationships at home:   “I’m sukh when the atmosphere in the home is peaceful.” Salim, a 26-year-old Muslim journalist, works with an mpm gpvernmental organisation (NGO) to provide education to the poor. Salim says he can only be happy when he feels all people’s happiness: “The meaning of khushhali is that there is khushhali in the family. Parents, brothers and sisters are happy. After that, people in the near vicinity are happy, people in the village are happy, people in the city are happy, and people in the whole country are happy. Then we get more happiness.”  An unmarried 26-year-old working in a retail store says “When the person in front of us is khushi, we, too, are khushi.” A 21-year-old jaggery seller, says he is happy when people “talk in a good way. If everyone is happy [khushi], I’m happy.”

A 23-year-old male labourer says simply that “Khushhali means love (pyar,  mohabbat) and friendship. The most khushhali comes from sharing my thoughts, heart (apna dil dilaana) and feelings with friends.” Another 21-year-old labourer at first wonders if she’s ever experienced happiness, but on reflections says she gets khushhali “joking and talking” with her brothers and sisters. A 30-year-old male labourer says that “at work, we are always talking and laughing with each other. This daily give-and-take is the source of happiness.” An 18-year-old male student, says that the meaning of khushhali is “talking with others and making them friends. My sukh is trying to know others and their problems.” A lower-caste 30-year-old proprietor of an electric shop says khushhali means “seeing a person happy in front of me. To see others laughing and smiling is my happiness. By staying cheerful and avoiding carrying any conflicts into my relationships, I’ll see only happy people.”

For Kantha, a 58-year-old who felt great well-being when she gave her shawl to a cold person on pilgrimage, well-being comes from sweet relations with her children and friends. Kantha enjoys visiting temple with friends in the morning and walking with them in the evening: “We all come together and I like that. Walking and talking together makes me feel good.” The 44-year-old wife of a school teacher similarly enjoys regular walks with her friends and says “I’m happy when everyone else is happy.” Kalpana, a 24-year-old living with her husband and brother-in-law’s family, is happy in her “inner core” because she’s soon to be a mother. She describes situations of well-being as arising when she shares “inner thoughts” with her close (khas, literally Special) friends. “Sharing thoughts forms great happiness for us.” 

Those living away from their families often describe well-being in terms of family togetherness. Avneet, 35, works as a cook in Dehradun, sending money monthly to his wife, children, parents and brothers in a distant village. Avneet says that there’s khushhali  “when my mother and brothers sit together in the home. I’m happy when we’re together (ek sath).” An 18-year-old commerce student who works in a phone-calling kiosk says he feels well-being when he is in Gorakhpur and “the whole family is together (ek sath), when we’re all sitting together. I like spending time joking, and talking to people—especially people who keep on talking to me.”

Interactions and Shifts in Well-Being

Sunil, 38, finds well-being in writing, singing, and recording local Garhwali music.  But Sunil  earns so little from singing that his wife’s nursing job pays the rent for their family’s tiny, two-room flat. Sunil says that “khushhali is being mentally happy, even if I don’t have money, and singing makes me happy.” But Sunil knows his hard-working wife is unhappy that he is not serious about earning money. Sunil loves his family, often praising his wife’s qualities and he seems delighted interacting with his children just as delights in Garhwali music. When I ask Sunil whether he ever experiences a lack of well-being, he first says he never misses opportunities for happiness, but then reflects on his earnings: “In some ways, I don't experience khushhali—I'm not repaid for the work that I do. Along with my creative work, I want to earn a lot and because I don’t, I feel dukh.”

The well-being Sunil gets from his musical creativity conflicts with simultaneous ill-being from failing to earn enough to satisfy himself or his wife. Sunil’s well-being is mixed. Sunil’s well-being shifts as his attention shifts from one arena of life (his musicality) to another (his support of his family) and this attention shifts with interactions, some of which he actively cultivates. When his wife criticises him for his lack of seriousness about earning, he just looks down, nodding his head and listening. If a news reporter calls to interview Sunil about Garhwali songs, he experiences well-being. If one of his wife’s friends buys a car or he has to make a payment for his children’s schooling, he feels unsatisfied. Still, Sunil actively cultivates interactions about his musical talent that induce feelings of well-being.  “Aren’t I a good singer?” he asks me. He plays over in his mind interactions with his father who is such an “emotional person that he weeps (with joy) when he sees me singing on television.”

While social scientists define subjective well-being as a sense of enduring of life satisfaction, well-being is more like a flow than an enduring state. Interactions shift people’s focus to areas of life that induce differing feelings of well-being. As a 58-year-old real estate seller told me “the ordinary person gets mental peace 36 times a day and loses it 36 times as well. It happens that way with me; I can’t say about others.”

I presented 80-year-old Ishwar Kumar as grumpy because he was grumpy with me. But Ishwar’s apparent lack of well-being may be fleeting. Perhaps something had just happened that made Ishwar grumpy about his family. When we ask Ishwar about pilgrimage, he takes pride in doing the Amarnath pilgrimage, which he says is very difficult. When I ask him to think about instances of well-being, Ishwar sparkles a bit, thinking of his pursuit of good interactions: "Even if I meet a  rough-tempered (gussa, literally angry) person I manage to talk with him and I get khushhali.” Asked about his purpose in life, Ishwar says that "meeting good people gives pleasure and passes the time well.” Ishwar grumpily grouses about his living situation in which he meets no good people, but when interactions with me lead to thoughts of purpose and positive interactions, both of us feel a touch of well-being.


Arlie Hochschild (1983) revolutionised understanding of emotions by highlighting emotions in interaction. Seeing well-being in interactions, rather than within the individual could similarly revolutionise the understanding of well-being.  Radhakamal Mukerjee (1965, viii-ix) argued sociology could bring about a “Copernican revolution” in the social sciences by shifting from studying “properties of objects” to studying “relations of objects” within the “whole sociological situation.”  Sociology’s distinctive contribution to understanding well-being is to see well-being in interactions rather than within the individual psyche—a conclusion consistent with the common sense understanding of Indians I interviewed.


Collins, Randall (2005): Interaction Ritual Chains, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, Emile (1915): The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (translated by Joseph Ward Swain), 1912, New York: Free Press.

Hochschild, Arlie (1983): The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mukerjee, Radhakamal (2005): “Preface to the Second Edition,”  The Social Structure of Values, 1965, pp viii–x, New Delhi: Radha Publications.

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