Is There an Obligation to be Happy?

Please explain how God can command us to be happy? Let’s say a person is not happy? What should he do about it? He can’t just turn it on!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your very important question. The truth is, technically speaking there is no obligation in the Torah that we be happy. There is a verse in Psalms that states we should serve God with joy (100:2). Likewise the Torah teaches us the terrible punishments which will befall Israel for rejecting God and His Torah, and in those curses it adds, “[All of this will be] on account that you did not serve Me with happiness and goodness of the heart…” (Deut. 28:47). However, strictly speaking, those verses do not instruct us to be happy at all times, just that we serve God with happiness.

There is additionally a well-known expression (and song): “It is a great mitzvah to be happy constantly.” But this too is not a verse or a statement from a classic text. It appears in the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Tanina 24), and though important, must be viewed as sage counsel rather than a strict obligation.

Finally, there is a verse in the Torah that we should rejoice in all the good God has granted us (Deut. 26:11) – that we be happy about our blessings. However, this too is not instructing us to be happy at all times and for everything, only for the good. In addition, the commentators do not view this as a strict obligation, one of the 613 commandments, but rather as an ideal to strive for.

Why does the Torah not command us to be happy? No doubt it is for the reason you wrote. Happiness is not in our direct control. We can strive to be happy but we cannot simply turn it on if we do not feel it. The Torah gives us realistic mitzvot alone – ones in our control to fulfill. Thus, it almost always addresses the realm of action rather than the realm of thought. We can be commanded not to eat pork but it’s impossible to command us not to be sad.

Even so, it is clear from many statements of the Sages that we should strive for happiness and cheerfulness (e.g., Talmud Sanhedrin 100b, Brachot 31a, 60b, Shabbat 30b, Ketubot 62a, Pirkei Avot 6:6). Rabbi Akiva, as well as his teacher Nachum Ish Gamzu, were known for accepting all that God granted them happily.

The reason that happiness is so integral is clear. People who are positive and excited about life will serve God with energy. They will be able to grow and to face challenges, rather than sinking into listlessness and depression. An early Hassidic Rebbe was likewise rerported to have said, “Although there is no mitzvah to be happy, happiness can bring one to the greatest of mitzvot.”

How does one acquire happiness? Ultimately it should stem from our belief in God. The stronger we believe in our hearts that God loves us and only give what is best for us, the less we will be frustrated and annoyed with how our lives are going. We will see everything in life as just right for us, and as opportunities specially crafted for us by a loving God, in order that we grow and maximize our potential.

But again, we cannot just turn on happiness. It is a skill, which as all skills must be learned and developed. We have a lot of material on how a person can acquire happiness. See here for some important links:

Finally, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin authored a classic book on this topic, Gateway to Happiness, which is the definitive work on the importance of being happy and how to get there.

I wish you a long and happy life!

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