When the Founding Fathers included the pursuit of happiness as an American right and entitlement, it is almost as if they conceded that happiness can be pursued, but it is unlikely to ever be attained. If you look around, you can’t help but notice that for many, the pursuit has grown tiring and indeed, many have given up. In the last 20 years, there has been an astounding increase in antidepressant use by Americans.
In 2006, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a book called Stumbling on Happiness. In it, he argues that the things and experiences we typically predict and imagine will bring us happiness, rarely do. Rather, he says, happiness is elusive and we should learn from how others have stumbled upon it. The first part of his thesis is undeniable. Study after study has concluded that money, fame, and power not only don’t contribute to happiness, but often are obstacles to and detractors from experiencing it.
As we find ourselves in the first of two months characterized by happiness and in which we are charged to be marbeh b’simcha, increase and expand our joy, it is worth asking ourselves: what are the true keys to happiness?
Here are three suggestions from Torah sources for finding happiness.
1. Happiness is not an emotion; it is a decision. Stop waiting passively to feel it and start actively choosing to be it.
The Torah says, “All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you” (Deut. 28:2). What does it mean to be overtaken by blessing? Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin explains that God gives each of us blessing in our lives. That blessing can manifest itself in all types of form – material possessions, meaningful relationships, special skills, wonderful opportunities, family, and the list could go on and on. The first blessing is the particular gift. But an even greater blessing is to recognize, appreciate and acknowledge the blessing – to be overtaken by it.
Happiness occurs when we make the decision to focus on the blessings in our lives, no matter how challenging or formidable the struggles we face simultaneously. If our happiness results from the blessings we already have, we can always find happiness because we always have at least something. But if our happiness is determined by what we don’t have, “If only I had more money, a nicer house, a better job, a more loving spouse, more loyal children, etc.” we will never be happy because we can always have more. By definition, there will always be something we don’t have.
It has been suggested homiletically that the etymology of the word simcha (joy) comes from Hebrew “sam mo’ach,” focus your thoughts. Make the decision to be happy and the feeling will follow.
2. Happiness comes from giving not from getting. It comes from being a giver, not a taker.
Social scientists are now studying what makes people happy and their answer is counter-intuitive. Paradoxically, the biggest obstacle to achieving happiness is our own pursuit of it. When happiness is defined by our needs, our wants, and our desires, it will remain elusive and unattainable for we will never have everything. Instead, studies show that people report better health and greater happiness when they volunteer for a worthwhile cause or spend time helping others. Moreover, studies have shown the efficacy of volunteering and helping in combating depression.
Someone once wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe z’l in a state of deep depression and hopelessness. The letter essentially said, “I would like the Rebbe’s help. I wake up each day sad and apprehensive. I can’t concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I keep the commandments, but I find no spiritual satisfaction. I go to the synagogue but I feel alone. I begin to wonder what life is about. I need help.”
The Rebbe sent a brilliant reply back that did not use even a single word. He simply circled the first word of every sentence in the letter and sent it back. The author of the letter understood, and he was on the path to greater happiness and hope. The circled word at the beginning of each sentence was ‘I’.
A self-centered person, a taker, can never be happy in life because they could never take enough. Givers find joy in doing for others and therefore have great access to happiness because there are always ample opportunities to give.
3. Surrender control – let go, let God.
A few summers ago, on a visit to Israel, I decided to go skydiving and to appreciate our homeland from a new perspective. After a comprehensive five minutes of instruction, I was taken up in a tiny plane that if I wasn’t crazy enough to jump out of, I was crazy to get into. With a helmet and goggles, they placed me with my feet dangling off the side of the airplane. We were 12,000 feet in the air and the beautiful land of Israel was a fuzzy blur. I vividly remember leaning over and looking down and feeling like I couldn’t breathe.
Before I could have any second thoughts, I felt a nudge and out the plane I went. I was heading towards mother Earth travelling over 130 miles an hour. The wind was rushing all around me, my arms and legs were extended, and I think I tasted my spleen. For a brief moment, I felt panicked. This is absolutely nuts, what kind of crazy, insane person does this? I thought to myself.
I started to get scared, worried and anxious and then I remembered. Immediately behind me, attached by numerous metal latches and clips, was a big Israeli man who trains paratroopers in the Israeli army and who does these jumps 8–10 times a day. We jumped in tandem and the moment I remembered that he literally had my back, I felt the biggest relief and was able to enjoy the rest of this remarkable experience.
The difference between a miserable, anxious experience and an exhilarating one was remembering there was someone who had my back who knew what he was doing. Six thousand feet and forty five seconds into the jump, he pulled the cord, the chute released, we sat up in the harness and for the next 10 minutes had the most extraordinary ride over Israel.
We need to take initiative, put forth our best efforts, and do everything we can to bring positive outcomes in our lives. However, believing that we can control and manipulate every outcome and result places impossible stress and pressure that preclude our ability to experience happiness. There is nothing more liberating, cathartic and joyful than doing our best, and then letting go of our need to control and allowing God do the rest. Remember: He has your back.
No matter how hard we try and what kind of effort we produce, our lives are going to inevitably and invariably throw curveballs our way. The difference between panicking anxiously or enjoying the ride is our ability to let go.