Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On Happiness

“When I was 5 years old,

my mom always told me

that happiness was the key to life.

When I went to school,

they asked me what I wanted to be

when I grew up.

I wrote down 'happy.'

They told me I didn’t understand the assignment

and I told them

they didn’t understand life.”

- Anonymous

The topic for our next vaad is happiness, what with it being Adar and this being our one scheduled meeting before Purim. I am gathering thoughts to share with all presenters and need to get it out. Better done than perfect.

Chazal say, "Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimchah, " so we'd best know what it is, so we can fulfill this dictum and allow it to spill over. Sukkot is also referred to specifically as a time of simchah, and is meant to be a harbinger of happiness for the year, another indication that it's worth considering what we talk about when and if we talk about happiness.

Being happy or being sad can make you feel like and even be a different person. Rav Chaim Shmuelewitz says that Yaakov is the name used when Yaakov was sad, and Yisrael is used when he was happy. This is reflected in the switch within the following pasuk, “And it came to pass after these things that someone said to Yoseph: 'Behold, your father is sick.' And he took with him his two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. And someone informed Yaakov, and said: 'Behold, your son Yosef is coming to you.' And Yisrael strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.”

Dennis Prager was once discussing what his topic would be for an upcoming stint as guest speaker at a university. All the usual suspects of big subjects came up (euthanasia, theodicy, etc). Prager suggested happiness. The organizer said, "We want a talk about a serious problem.' Prager replied, "Happiness is a serious problem." He went on to make it a priority in his private and public life, writing a book called Happiness Is a Serious Problem, and devoting a segment of his show regularly to the moral obligation to be happy.

I recommend reading the essay linked to above, and watching this five minute video called "Happiness is a Moral Obligation." Prager says that we owe it to others on a micro and macro scale (neighbors, nations) to be happy. Just like we want to see others putting forward a happy disposition. We owe them no less, and we also owe it to ourselves. The world, and we ourselves are better off when we are, or at least act, happy. Just like anger is something we feel, so too is sadness. Just like we're expected to not show anger to others (and Chazal and Baalei Mussar are harsh with their words regarding those who display anger), so too with happiness.

Prager writes, "There are some clear rules to happiness. One is that you cannot be happy if your primary identity is that of a victim, even if you really are one." He states several reasons why victim-hood precludes happiness. Here's his explanation - adapted by me - for why people who identify themselves as victims can't be happy:

People who see themselves as victims don't take control of their lives because they don't see it as an option. They feel that life happens to them not by them. So they're not going to do what they need to, to make themselves happy. Part of victim-hood is to feel that life is unfair and to enjoy being an unhappy and "picked on" soul. Another part of the victim syndrome is to be perpetually angry, "and an angry disposition makes happiness impossible." Enjoying life and being happy will mean letting go of the choice to view oneself as a victim and people who are committed to feeling victimized are in that place because they gain something from it (or think they do) that they don't want to let go of.

Another thing that goes hand in hand with happiness is gratitude. Prager writes about this at length and sums up his thoughts on gratitude briefly in this video. The yesod of happiness is summed up by Chazal (Avot 4:1) in the aphorism: "Eizehu ashir? hasameach bechelko."

Chazal (in Pesachim) say that nevuah will rest only upon someone who is in a state of simchah - happiness, that the shechinah only rests on someone who is besimchah (Shabbos 32b). In the fourth perek of Brachot the Gemorah says that one should be in a state of simchah before starting to daven.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski wrote two books on happiness and speaks on the topic often. Here is a recent talk he gave on the subject. Like Prager, Rabbi Twerski notes that the founding fathers of the United States of America included "the pursuit of happiness" in their declaration of independence as a sign of the importance of happiness. However, he notes that today satisfaction of desires and the pursuit of pleasure has largely replacement the pursuit of happiness. The following is from his book Positive Parenting:

"Many people sacrifice comforts, conveniences, and pleasure in pursuit of an ultimate goal. However, if the ultimate goal is pursuit of pleasure, it is unreasonable to expect people, especially youngsters, to sacrifice pleasure for the ultimate goal which is ... pursuit of pleasure. Western culture with its hedonism has painted itself into a corner.

What about Torah-observant families? Let us be brutally frank with ourselves. Many Torah-observant families have been caught up in pursuit of pleasure, the one difference being that they partake only of pleasures that have a hechsher, which today includes almost everything.

It is not as though we were not forewarned in regard to this. The Ramban in reference to the mitzvah (Leviticus 19:2), "You shall be holy," asks, 'What is the requirement of this mitzvah?' His answer is prophetic. It is possible for a person to technically observe all of the restrictions in the Torah, yet live a life of physical indulgence. The mitzvah of kedoshim tehiyu, "You shall be holy," means that a person should abstain not only from things that are forbidden by the Torah, but even from the many things that are permissible, but which are unnecessary for optimum health and functioning."

There are two different things - looking happy and feeling happy. Each one is important. Rav Yisrael Salanter once questioned a student of his who looked somber and explained that it was because it was Ellul and he was doing teshuvah. Rav Yisrael asked him, "Because you're doing Teshuvah, I have to suffer?" On a similar note Rav Yisrael Salanter said that a person's face and facial expression is reshut harabbim! On the other hand, internal happiness, our outlook from inside, is key and largely in our own hands. Abraham Lincoln said, "A person is as happy as he wants to be" paraphrasing Aristotle who said,"Happiness depends upon ourselves."

By acting happy, we can be influenced to become happy ("fake it till you make it" - in recovery parlance). As Sefer HaChinuch is cited as saying, "Acharei hape'ulot nimshachim halevavot." On the other hand it is important to remember that true happiness is a value, and that a smiling face can be deceptive. As the song says, "Smiling faces tell lies."

In 2005 I heard Dr. David Pelkowitz speak about happiness, and wrote it up here. One important point he makes is that happiness and meaning (as per Victor Frankel) go hand in hand. We are happy when we feel we are of value, that our life has purpose.

Eduardo Porter made the following important and powerful points about happiness in his New York Times piece in 2007: (The full article is available here.)

"Happiness is clearly real, related to objective measures of well-being. Happier people have lower blood pressure and get fewer colds. But using it to guide policy could be tricky. Not least because we don’t quite understand why it behaves the way it does. Men are unhappiest at almost 50, and women at just after 45. Paraplegics are not unhappier than healthy people. People who live with teenagers are the unhappiest of all.

Happiness, it appears, adapts. It’s true that the rich are happier, on average, than the poor. But while money boosts happiness, the effect doesn’t last. We just become envious of a new, richer set of people than before. Satisfaction soon settles back to its prior level, as we adapt to changed circumstances and set our expectations to a higher level.

Despite happiness’ apparently Sisyphean nature, there may be ways to increase satisfaction over the long term. While the extra happiness derived from a raise or a winning lottery ticket might be fleeting, studies have found that the happiness people derive from free time or social interaction is less susceptible to comparisons with other people around them. Non monetary rewards — like more vacations, or more time with friends or family — are likely to produce more lasting changes in satisfaction.

One thing seems certain, lining up every policy incentive to strive for higher and higher incomes is just going to make us all miserable. Happiness is one of the things that money just can’t buy."

Integrity is related to happiness. We are taught not to be "echad bepeh ve'echad belev." Ideally our speech, thoughts, and actions are all in consonance with one another. Mahatma Gandhi said, iness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony."

May we be blessed to show happiness to the world and to ourselves and to truly feel it inside.


What do you think people mean when they refer to happiness?

How do you define happiness?

Are you happy?

What makes you happy? What makes you unhappy?

Give an example of how happiness plays a part in your daily life in general.

Give an example of how happiness played a part in your life recently.

A friend needs your help with studying for a test (or fill in the blank) but you are busy trying to perfect your score on Halo (or fill in the blank). You think that playing your game will make you happy and helping your friend will bring you down, what do you do? What would you tell someone to do if they were faced with this choice?

"Happy Birthday Dear _____" - What do we mean when we sing this?

"Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder." - Henry David Thoreau. Share your thoughts about this quote.

Write a haiku about happiness.


Blogger rr said...

Great post. So much to think about. So rich and full of ideas. Thank you!

February 28, 2012 at 11:54 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Glad it's meaningful to you. Thank you for telling me.

February 29, 2012 at 12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is really excellent! Kol hakavod to you! I am very impressed by your breadth of knowledge.

March 1, 2012 at 10:02 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thank you anonymous, just noticed this now.

March 18, 2012 at 10:35 PM  

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