The Pursuit of Happiness
Sometimes it’s so easy to feel happy – when we hear just the right song, or the right movie, spend time with the right people, nosh on the right food, or visit the right place.
We are all well aware that we can find temporary happiness in certain things, or people, or locations, and it makes us happy in that moment. Tonight, we wish each other a Shanah tovah – a GOOD new year. Yet we also say Chag Sameach – a Happy Holiday. It is one thing to wish someone a good year – but what does it mean to have a HAPPY year?
For too many of us, our lives feel overcast by shadows, by challenges, by heartache or loss. We may feel a bit like Sisyphus, forever rolling that boulder up a never-ending mountain. We see people around us who seem to be happy, content, or satisfied with their lives, no matter what. How do they get there? How are some of our friends or family so very happy all the time?
The question of happiness, and the pursuit of this happiness, is a very popular topic in science, sociology, pop culture, health care, and, yes, Judaism.
A few years ago, a man named Alvin Wong received a call from The New York Times. After asking him a few questions about his demographic background, the excited reporter on the line gave Wong a piece of news that would upend his life: He was the happiest man in America. His first response was utter disbelief.
“Who would ever have thought? You’re sitting around in your house, and someone says you’re the happiest guy,” Wong said. “I said, ‘Is this a practical joke that you guys are playing on me?’”
The reporter, Catherine Rampell, wasn’t kidding. The New York Times had asked Gallup, the polling firm, to assemble a statistical composite of the happiest person in America, based on its 2011 report on American well-being.
Gallup’s data painted a surprising picture: The hypothetical happiest American would be a tall, Asian-American man over 65 years old, who lives in Hawaii, is married with children, owns a business, earns a household income of more than $120,000 a year — and is an observant Jew.
In other words, Alvin Wong.
The 5-foot-10-inch Honolulu senior citizen was born to Chinese parents, is happily married and has two children. A convert to Judaism, Wong is active in his synagogue and keeps a kosher home. At the time, he ran his own health care management business and earned more than $120,000 a year.
How often can YOU declare that you are feeling HAPPY?
Right now, if you were asked, would you answer that you are happy?
Does being happy even matter? And does Judaism care if you are happy?
Our culture certainly seems to promote happiness as a virtue. Some even argue that there is something distinctly American about the pursuit of happiness. Of course, this idea goes all the way back to July 4, 1776 and what might be the most famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson was asked to write the Declaration of Independence in just a few days. Jefferson was a well-read person; his home Monticello was filled with the works of contemporary and historic philosophers. In fact, one of Jefferson’s favorite thinkers was 17th century English philosopher, John Locke. Locke originally posited (in “Two Treatises on Government”) the idea that a person’s right to live a healthy life, free to amass and maintain property — “life, health, liberty and property” — is one granted by God. Locke also reasoned that our fates are determined by God; no other individual may interfere with that fate.
Locke doesn’t mention happiness – instead, he viewed property as one of the indisputable rights given to all of us by God. Yet, in a separate text, Locke discusses the pursuit of happiness in the 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding. There Locke wrote:
The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.
John Locke believed that happiness was the natural state of humanity. But both Locke and Jefferson avoid giving us specific examples or directions on how to be happy, or where to find happiness. “The pursuit of happiness” is a complicated concept. Is it sensual or hedonistic? Is it material or spiritual? What would lead us to find “true and solid” happiness?
Looking back even further, we see that Jefferson was also influenced by the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Aristotle wrote, “The happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.” Aristotle argued that Happiness is not equivalent to wealth, honor, or pleasure. Instead, it is an end in itself, not the means to an end.
Though philosophers, poets, and artists have pondered the question of happiness for millenia, science stayed out of the discussion until relatively recently. For instance, many people want to believe that money is a key to happiness. Certainly those who are financially challenged feel this way – that just having more money would solve so much of their unhappiness. However, in the 1970’s, economists tried to examine this connection between money and happiness. Economist George Easterlin looked into this question, and he found that while income in the United States grew following World War II, reported happiness in the country did not rise in equal measure. Easterlin found that this lack of correlation was not just an American phenomenon, but also applied to other developed nations. Over time, the so-called Easterlin Paradox has been refined – it’s now been found that money does increase happiness to certain degrees — but the data suggests that once basic necessities like food, shelter and health care are secured, income falls out of step with happiness.
What researchers have also found is that we experience happiness through involved relationships that bestow on us a sense of belonging, and activities and lifestyles that engage us. In fact, some psychologists are confident that what makes people happy can be narrowed down to three categories: genetics, the circumstances of one’s life and the choices we make.
Some of us are a lot more optimistic than others. There is no sugar-coating the fact that some people have happy genes and others do not. If you take a look at my son, Spencer, it just seems obvious that he was born with lots of happy genes. Geneticists estimate that genes are responsible for about 50% of the differences in how happy people report that they are. Apart from extreme events or traumas, what actually happens in our lives can be surprisingly unimportant to how happy we are.
So, genetics are 50%, the second category is the circumstances of one’s life. This category, which includes health, wealth, and relationships, only comprises about 10% of what makes us happy. This is certainly surprising, but it shows us that, rather than the events or circumstances of our lives determining how we feel, it is, instead, how and what we think that makes up the rest of the formula.
Thus, the remaining 40% of our happiness is found in the choices we make – and what is fascinating is that this is the part we control. This 40% is made up of how we behave, how we think about our lives, and how we go about making choices. This is the happiness that comes from returning a lost wallet, being a good friend, or remaining faithful to one’s spouse.
Studies indicate that most of us overestimate the pleasure we’ll experience from major events (buying a Lamborghini) and underestimate the joy we’ll feel in smaller moments (sitting by a relaxing stream).
Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, surveyed two wildly different groups – recent lottery winners and recent amputees. Initially, the winners felt a dramatic rise in happiness; the amputees, a notable loss of happiness. Within three years, though, most winners and amputees had adjusted to their circumstances and were roughly as happy as they had been before their “life-changing” event.
The field of Psychology has continued to try to approach Happiness through scientific means. Martin Seligman is considered the father of positive psychology. He noticed that 90% of the science in psychology is based on the disease model. Psychology was working hard to identify victims and pathologies, but not at all on what might make someone’s life positive.  Seligman realized that efforts should be made to evaluate the people who are happy, functioning well, and who adapt to life’s challenges successfully, so that we could learn from their strengths.
In researching happiness, Seligman wrote that he hopes that, “we will be able to make the parallel claim about happiness; that is, in the same way I can claim unblushingly that psychology and psychiatry have decreased the tonnage of suffering in the world, my aim is that psychology and maybe psychiatry will increase the tonnage of happiness in the world.”
Central to Seligman’s positive psychology is “eudemonia, the good life… When one is in eudemonia, time stops. You feel completely at home. Self-consciousness is blocked. You’re one with the music.”
How do we become one with the music? How do we find happiness? Is there, in fact, a secret to happiness? If you go home tonight and Google the phrase, “The Secret to Happiness,” you’ll find pages and pages of links that purport to share with you THE secret. Tons of online experts have weighed in on what the secret might be.
I think that it is easy to dismiss happiness as shallow or silly. Some might even view it as irrelevant. But, in case you need more convincing, allow me to show you some of the ways that happiness is woven into the fabric of Jewish tradition.
First, words for happiness and joy appear often – we sing Yism’chu on Friday nights – meaning “we will rejoice” or “be happy.” The root word is Sameach – the same root in Simchah, the word we use for good occasions. It is telling that our life celebrations are referred to as “Happy Times.” Some interpret the word Sameach as a combination of the Hebrew words, Sham (which means “there”), and Moach (which means “your brain”). Putting these words together, you get “Where your head is at,” or the idea that happiness is filled with purpose and meaning.
Sukkot, a holiday we celebrate in a couple of weeks, is also known as Z’man Simchateinu, the Time of our Happiness. It is immediately followed by Simchat Torah, the Happiness of the Torah. We wish each other chag sameach – a happy holiday, on each of the festivals. Also, we go into the social hall after Shabbat services, and we call it the Oneg. Oneg does not mean cookies, brownies, or snacks. Rather, it means “joy,” in that noshing and talking together brings us a special Shabbat joy.
Also, at weddings, we join together in Sheva B’rachot – the central seven blessings for a married couple. The seventh blessing uses many Hebrew synonyms for happiness, and each has its own nuances. We hear the word, Gilah, which a 19th century Rabbi known as Malbim defined as “peak moments of happiness,” as opposed to the sustained feeling of simchah. The 18th century Rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon points out that the word, Sasson, used here in the wedding blessings, implies happiness tinged with sadness. He said that it is just like what parents feel when they say goodbye to a child under the chuppah, because they are of course happy, but also sad that their child is officially leaving home.
The most illuminating text on happiness is found in the Mishnah, the Jewish rabbinic text from the 2nd century CE, in the group of writings known as Pirkei Avot. There, we find the wise words, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”
Here, rather than suggesting that wealth leads to happiness, the rabbis believe that happiness and contentment lead to a feeling of wealth and abundance.
It is as if they anticipated our scientific studies that showed that 40% of our happiness is how we feel about the world – it is all in our perspective. Don’t get me wrong – Jews have certainly earned the right to be pessimistic, grouchy, or fatalistic. And, yet, look at our history of humor, success, philosophy, creative arts – we somehow have found a way to remain optimistic and grateful, even when the entire world seems turned against us.
Feeling blessed, feeling satisfied, feeling content – no matter what or how much we have – this is what the rabbis teach us. Acknowledging this contentment also leads to a sense of gratitude. We can be grateful for what we have and who we are, right this very minute.
Tal Ben-Shahar, an American and Israeli professor who teaches “The Science of Happiness” at Harvard University, says,
“I was raised in an Orthodox home and find that many of the key ideas in the field of positive psychology can be found in ancient Jewish texts. …Take the idea of gratitude: The first word that a religious Jew says in the morning is modeh, to give thanks. We know from research that expressing gratitude on a regular basis contributes to well-being.”
Once we feel true gratitude, we often then feel inclined to share our blessings with others. Maimonides, one of our most influential commentators, wrote about happiness, and he said that you can certainly feel happiness by indulging yourself on a holiday, but he pointed that true, sustained happiness is tied to reaching out beyond yourself, inviting the less fortunate to your holiday table.
The experiences of our fellow congregants seem to reiterate that which makes life truly worthwhile.
Kiersten Pupkowski shared, “3 things off the top- laughing as a family, singing and creating things without expectations and all the animal friends in our lives (our loving dog especially).
Linda Sherman added, “The love of a dog, the giggle of a child, the twinkle in someone’s eye. My family. Colors and music. Water.”
And Erica Gelven most enjoys, “The smell of low tide. My daughters’ choir concerts. Annual spring trips to Boston with my husband. Sunsets.
Liz Rosenblum-Jones: My family – human, canine and feline. The ocean and lake, blue sky. Chocolate.
Michelle Adinolfo-Fishman: My daughters’ spirits and bravery, my husband’s constant support and encouragement, warm snuggles with our dog, great music with much dancing, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting
Rebecca Joslow MacGregor: Balance (and lots of emojis)
Jenna Randall: My youngest son’s insistence on “momma cuddles” every night (my older boys have already reached the ‘too cool to be hugged or kissed’ age); making beautiful music out of prayers and vice versa (I know no other way to communicate with the forces that govern this universe); and study–whether it be Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, history, literature, sociology, psychology, music, astronomy (all the things I study most), the holy obligation to obtain knowledge, to interrogate every source–and the need to use that knowledge to make the world a better, less broken place–as far as I’m concerned, there is no more important, fulfilling work on this earth.
Eric Infeld: Quietly sitting holding hands with my wife; hiking and sharing High peak summits and awe inspiring views with my three sons; the joy of sharing time and learning from my students; the serenity found in between the notes singing with choir; cooking and enjoying a meal that we are satisfied by.
So, remember Alvin Wong, the happiest person in the world? Huffington Post re–visited him a few years after he was told that he was the happiest person in America. According to HuffPost, after being given the label of the country’s happiest man, Wong says he felt a certain responsibility to be more introspective about his happiness and good fortune. He considers the title both an honor and a duty, and has since pursued a second career in motivational speaking.
Wong found himself saddened by how many people, from all over the world, called him seeking the secret to happiness. He even took a phone call from a rabbi who spent 30 minutes telling him why, as a Jew, he couldn’t possibly be the happiest man in America due to our tragic history! “Since being named the happiest man in America, I’ve done a lot of reading and research on this stuff,” he says. “I learned about myself … And I think, for my own sake, I’ve come to terms with what is the secret to my happiness. It’s attitude.”
Wong says that, for him, clarity comes the moment you realize that it’s OK to not be the smartest or even the happiest person in the world, and when you learn to accept your mistakes. “I guess my attitude has always been, you’ve got to go forward,” he said. “When you have a failure, when you have something that happens to you that is traumatic, what you have to do is learn from it, but move on and not let that happen again.”
Another key to happiness, according to Wong, is learning to laugh at yourself. “Happiness is, I don’t think of myself too seriously,” he said. “If you can’t laugh at yourself — at all your problems [and] mistakes — then you’re going to go through life a very unhappy person. This has always been my philosophy.”
Thus, in the wisdom of our ancestors, and the wisdom of today, we find the secrets to happiness.
Optimism. Courage. Connection. Humility.
Spirituality. Faith. Altruism. Perspective.
Humor. Purpose. Love. Choice.
Might this be the year that we find a little bit more of this? Might we choose to make 5778 a HAPPY new year?
So I leave you, tonight, with a short conversation from Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith:
So, have we solved the secret of happiness? I asked the rabbi.
“I believe so,” he said.
Are you going to tell me?
“For what you have. For the love you receive. And for what God has given you.”
He looked me in the eye. Then he sighed deeply. “That’s it.”
 Moment Magazine, September/October 2014, p. 41 (David Pelcovitz).
 Pirke Avot 4:1
 Moment Magazine, September/October 2014, p. 41-42 (Tal Ben-Shahar).
 Shared on CBSRZ Community Facebook page. Retrieved September 18, 2017.