While I was teaching Malay words to someone, I noticed that ‘happy’ has two distinct words in my language .
The first one is Gembira . It is the feeling when you have achieved something or when you are having fun. It can be associated with high emotional intensity, like delight, or even euphoria.
It describes something transient and can go away as quickly as it comes.
The second is Bahagia . It carries the broader sense of peace, of meaningfulness — more of a smile than a laugh. It is reflective (think of a dying person reflecting on his entire life). It is also related to honouring greatness. The MC in a formal event uses this word to address the highest-ranking VIPs.
It describes something longer-lasting and more profound than gembira.
(I will write the English gembira as happy, and bahagia using the capitalised Happy.)
Three happy principles
Noticing this subtle distinctions remind us of three important principles:
1. Making someone gembira does not always make them bahagia.
What makes someone happy does not always make them Happy.
To make the kids happy, it is easier to let them eat junk food or spend too much time staring at the tablet. To keep your loved ones happy, you tell little lies, or avoid confronting them about their harmful behaviours.
Those are not the highest things you can provide to the relationships . There is nothing Happy about being an obese and undisciplined kid, or being in a dishonest relationship, or one that is infected by a harmful habit.
Love, sometimes, requires courage to stop giving someone what they want, to lay the space open for what they need.
2. The aim of life is not to be gembira.
The aim of a successful life is not about being happy.
If it were, you would fail your aim as soon as life tragedies visit you. And they will visit you. You or the person close to you will face a severe illness, or a life-changing accident, or an unexpected failure.
Bahagia is a better aim.
There is a famous story in the Islamic tradition. One day, the Prophet saw a bedouin leaving his camel untied. It’s the 7th century version of leaving your sedan parked with the engine on and the door unlocked.
‘Why are you not tying your camel?’ the Prophet asked.
‘I put my trust in God,’ the man replied. I’m sure my camel will not run away, because I’m a spiritual person. Bad things won’t happen to me.
To this, the Prophet made it clear, ‘Tie your camel and then put your trust in God’ .
Aiming for bahagia means you set up your life to fortify against potential tragedies. You curtail the risks. You maintain good relationships, based on honesty and sincerity. You read and think with more breadth and depth. You deepen your spirituality.
You tie all your camels, so that you can sustain that longer-lasting, more profound sense of peace and meaningfulness of your life as a whole, even when tragedies befall you.
3. To be bahagia, prepare to sacrifice being gembira
To be Happy, prepare to sacrifice being happy.
For example, if you are a young student with few responsibilities, it is tempting to believe that this is the time for you to get as much gembira as possible. It makes sense. You have the time, you have that allowance money that others have trusted on you. So, why not take advantage of it?
Because those money, energy and time will evaporate much sooner than you think. And the demands of life after you graduate will hurt you if you don’t prepare for it now.
So, encourage yourself to sacrifice gembira for bahagia. Sacrifice mindless entertainments to delve into knowledge. Not all of it, of course. Perhaps it’s too much. But sacrifice it as much as you can handle now. Once you get stronger, sacrifice more.
If your lecturer is unhelpful, seek another mentor. If your course is awfully incompatible with you, figure out how to change your situation so you can study or train in something else. But don’t just let your ship float around aimlessly. Take command of the bridge and be the captain.
Through this sacrifice, you will earn Happy over time.
Because you won’t have to always be at the mercy of others to survive. You will be educated enough to handle the complexities that life hurls at you. You will become so valuable that you can alleviate pains in others. You can take care of those you love.
Making the happy vs. Happy distinction through decisions
We don’t get bahagia or Happy within the individual units of time. We can’t say, ‘Yeah, I did this today, and now I get that Happy thing forever. Mic drop. Done.’ Rather, it is the result of the grand collection of well-lived moments of our entire life.
However, we do need to operate within those individual units of time because they contain our decisions.
Distinguish between happy and Happy for yourself through those decisions. Start small. Think about what you are about to do — to read, to eat, to watch, to listen to, or to say — today. In each, ask:
‘Of these options that I have, which one will make me happy, and which one will make me Happy?’
 Variants of the Malay language are spoken by 250-300 million people, mostly in Southeast Asia. Some English words originate from Malay, for example:
- Compound: an enclosed area, from kampung (village)
- Agar: a culture medium used by microbiologists, from agar-agar (jelly cake-like dish).
- Ketchup: a thick sauce, from kicap (fish or soy sauce)
- Launch: a short-range boat, from lancar (launching, as is launching combat boats from a warship).
You can read more about the Malay language here.
 To pronounce ‘gembira’, break them into three syllables:
It doesn’t sound like ‘gems’ the precious stones. The ‘ge‘ sounds like the first part of ‘gazelle’. Replace ‘zelle’ with ‘m‘.
Sounds like the ‘bi’ in ‘bit’ rather than in ‘beat’.
Sounds like the last part of ‘mirror‘.
 To pronounce ‘bahagia’:
Sounds like the ‘ba’ in ‘bar’.
Sounds like ‘hah’ as in ‘Hah! I knew you’re gonna say that.’
Sounds like ‘gear’. Silent the ‘r’.
 Based on the best scientific data we have, our relationships are the best investment for happiness, more than our personal achievements. I wrote about that research here.
 In the collection called Jami’ al-Tirmidhī, a version of it was recorded through Anas bin Malik: ‘A man said “O Messenger of God, shall I tie it (the camel) and rely (upon God), or leave it loose and rely?” He said, “Tie it and rely.”‘ (Vol. 4, Book 11, Hadith 2517; read the Arabic text here).