A 12-year-old told me recently how the teacher asked her class to think about whether most people on Earth were happy. As a result, the class ended up discussing what is happiness, actually. A difficult topic, apparently, but one relevant to both schoolchildren and adults.

I would like to share a theory from transactional analysis, which, in my opinion, tackles this question best.

I must start with a disclaimer: we won’t be talking about feeling happy, but about happiness as a general concept. Feeling happy and happiness are connected, of course, but not as closely as it might seem at first sight. A happy person may feel sad or angry, or even complain, according to circumstances. At the same time, a deeply unhappy person may experience a lot of elation, joy, and inspiration, especially when such positive emotions appear out of place and next to mood swings taking to the other extreme of despair and depression.

Of course, happiness is a philosophical concept, and will mean something slightly different to each person. This is why we all have our own roads to happiness. However, since this is a topic that never loses relevance, many specialists, including the psychotherapist Eric Berne, have attempted to tackle it and to define certain tendencies and algorithms.

One of the concepts of transactional analysis is the winning script (the winner’s script). In case you aren’t familiar with the term, it concerns the global life script of a person. In order to feel happiness and fulfilment in life, it is important to be a winner in one’s personal script. Eric Berne calls a winner the person who has decided to reach a certain goal in his or her life and who did eventually reach it.

Mind you: what matters for happiness is not just the knowledge of having reached your goals, but also a feeling of internal harmony, self-awareness, and living every moment of your life to the full. For many people it is these two factors that determine the level of happiness.

Let us use a metaphor to explain it better. Imagine life as embroidery on a piece of fabric. You have a general idea of what you would like to embroider on your piece. Sometimes you are inspired to add new or unexpected elements to the ornament, sometimes you simply follow a plan you had made at the beginning. And here is your embroidery, all done, and it is beautiful, but not at all as you had intended at the start. Even the additions are not exactly as you imagined them in your plans. Because of these incongruences you are left with a bitterish taste of dissatisfaction. People may say: ‘Why are you so upset? It looks great, can’t you see?’, but you still feel that something went wrong.

On the other hand, imagine a different situation. When embroidering, you kept referring to your plan; you thought out every detail and rejoiced to see the results of the ongoing work. And there it is, your ornament, looking exactly as you expected. Why not rejoice then? But if you check the reverse of the fabric, you will see chaos: knots, loose threads and disorderly stitches. And in consequence, although you’ve apparently got what you wanted, it is all so confusing you cannot enjoy it properly.

It is even more upsetting if the ornament doesn’t turn out right and the reverse is unsightly too. But actually, if you think about it, onlookers won’t know the difference unless you tell them. People seldom inspect the reverse and they most certainly cannot know what the author planned originally. This is why it is ultimately only the concerned person who gets to decide if happiness has been achieved. And even then they would need the courage to look at the reverse and to remember the initial design.

You might wish to ask me now: ‘So what can I do with this information?’

In my opinion, you should take the opportunity to listen to yourself and to your wishes, seek a way to fulfil them and learn to leave in harmony with yourself and the world. Not an easy task, but worth trying!