A culture can be understood by its vocabulary. Koreans have yeondu and chorok, both shades of green in English.  A Korean will surely see these colors as more distinct than an English speaker[1]. Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted us to think spiritually and therefore Hebrew has many words for manifestations of G-d, for holiness, and for impurity[2].    Hebrew also has many different words for joy – שמחה, עונג, גילה, רינה, דיצה, וחדוה and more. Each has its subtleties, each experienced in its own way in its own time. But the message is clear: Judaism encourages a profound appreciation of happiness.

In 2005, an Israeli, Tal Ben-Shahar, then 34, began lecturing at Harvard on happiness. A year later, his two courses were the most popular and third most popular respectively.  Like all who have thought about this question, Tal linked happiness with finding meaning in life, with how we interpret what happens to us[3]. Tal pointed out that a frightening 45% of American students claimed to have experienced depression once in the past year to a degree that did not allow them to function. 94% of students throughout the United States feel overwhelmed.  These ought to be their golden years of life. But surprise, surprise, freedom and lack of responsibility happiness doth not make.

The Atlantic Magazine, in a recent series of articles, also tackled this issue of happiness. One article stated that it is possible to talk oneself into being happy[4], while another stated that richer countries are happier than poorer countries and richer families within richer countries are happier, too.[5] Yes, but it also said people earning above $75,000 “do not appear to enjoy either more positive affect nor less negative affect than those earning just below that,” and that, although the U.S economy had doubled in size since the early 1970s, overall wellbeing has declined because the money produced more problems.  There may be a happiness ceiling where rich countries don’t get any happier as they get richer.[6]

The Atlantic was kind enough to inform us of how goals for happiness change with age[7]. Finally, the Atlantic informed us of the powerful correlation between the warmth of the relationships we have with our parents in childhood and our health and happiness in old age. Warmth with mothers produces more money and greater effectiveness at work, while warmth with fathers correlates with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction” at age 75.[8]

The message I got from this is, ‘Make more money and love your mommy and daddy more.’ Since I don’t know how to do the former, I have decided to focus on the latter.  In a world which measures joy in terms of vacations, big houses, and servants, more wealth equals more happiness.  It is quite possible that, were we able to measure the happiness quotient of ants or bees or birds, they would turn out to be happier still. But I would never want to be an ant.

Now what if we did some study that would show that people with less knowledge are happier than people with more knowledge? Knowledge gives one too much insight into war and evil and ethical dilemmas. Better to stay ignorant and happier. I wouldn’t have it for a moment. The richness of knowledge is a different level of life-satisfaction.  Clearly there is something missing from the Atlantic’s perspective.

We need a definition of happiness that involves achieving something or, as many put it, flourishing[9]. The opposite of this is what I call “retirement happiness” – working hard, retiring, and then touring the world. This is not flourishing – it is seeing how other people flourish while one is on permanent vacation from life. I put drug addicts in this category. The pleasure of addicts is not real pleasure because it is artificially induced. So too, the pleasures of passively watching the achievements of others – sportsmen, movie and music stars – none of this is real happiness because it is never our own. The moment it is over there is nothing there. Essentially, these kinds of pleasures represent vacations from life – pleasure from life instead of through life.

Just as bad is the pleasure of expectation[10]. We are just waiting to finish high school and then we are going to be able to start living and be happy. We are just waiting to qualify, to start working, to retire… tomorrow will bring us joy.  This is life delayed; a tragic reflection of those who cannot embrace their present, so they embrace their future

Just as bad as living in the future, is living in the past. This is the pleasure of memory – we take out the old albums and remember fondly the fishing trip, the bar mitzvah, the wedding, the honeymoon. These albums are important mind you. We are, to some degree, the cumulative experiences of our past. If we can’t connect the dots we are in real trouble. But, memory is only good if it gives us a sense of how our life is unfolding – a sign-post from whence we came, the better to know whither we are going. If our lives comprise wallowing in nostalgia, then we are living in the past – we are no longer alive in the present, and we have no future.

So where does happiness lie? Thinking people of all stripes inevitably conclude that happiness comes from a life meaningfully lived. Victor Frankl pointed out the self-transcendent nature of man. “Only to the extent to which man fulfills a meaning out there in the world, does he fulfill himself. If he sets out to actualize himself rather than fulfill a meaning, self-actualization immediately loses its justification.” (The Will to Meaning, p. 38)

And here is Mort Mandel: “Happiness for me is meeting my own expectations and those of the people I care about and love.”[11]

From this emerges an important point. There is no such thing as “being happy” – as if one enters a state of being.  Human beings are forever becoming. God makes אדם and the world is then טוב מאד . The word מאדdoes not mean “much”. It means “more and more”[12]. It contains the same letters as אדם. אדם is he who can become more and more[13]. אדם is also related  to דמיון, imagination. אדם is he who can  אדמה לעליון – who can imitate the Divine. To do so requires a vision, a leap of the imagination (and hence the word אדמהis related to the word דמיון[14]). 

Woe betide a man who cannot conceive of the gap between who he is and what he ought to become, between his being and his becoming, between his current reality and his vision of himself.  Such a spiritually dead person will be but half a man, a caricature of the concept אדם. And he will be miserable as a result.

And so Judaism is demanding.  It is a system of becoming – of engaging a deeply purposeful life. The striving itself is the goal. As humans we are happy as a consequence of becoming:  by learning Torah, doing Mitzvot, getting married, having a baby or even by graduating and getting a job.[15]  But this does not yet guarantee that we stay happy.

The vital missing ingredient, says the Orchot Tzadkikim is bitachonBitachon is the key to happiness. And happiness is the key to everything else. [16]

Why is that?

baal-bitachon is a positive thinker. He engages everything as a being a marvelous opportunity – כל מה דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד.[17]   He doesn’t get down when things don’t go his way, not because he is stoic and heroic, and not because he has an explanation, but because he believes that what is happening to him is an act of G-d’s love. If you totally trust another, you are willing to put yourself totally in their hands. So too, he who trusts in Hashem.[18]  Such a person has turned happiness into an outlook on life. In fact, says the Maharal, one can use joy as a yardstick to measure one’s bitachon.[19]

The bitachon worldview does not tell us to simply put a positive spin on things; it allows us to understand our experiences in a certain way. It is a mental framework through which all information gets filtered[20]. In this worldview, adversity is not just a fortuitous opportunity – it is the perfect opportunity.[21]  

It is not the event itself, but the cognitive framing of a positive outcome that allows the person to embrace his situation with joy. The Reishit Chochma gives us some examples: A patient who believes his bitter medications will cure him will happily take them. A servant who truly believes his reward will be great, will subject himself to all kinds of unpleasant work with joy.[22]

The opposite of happiness is not pain and it is not misery; it is worry and the lack of peace of mind; it is anger (Maharal[23]) and it is fear (Maharal[24]). It is bitachon-deprivation!

But there is more. Bitachon is a key to happiness because happiness is achieved when one feels a consistency and continuity about one’s state. Bitachon allows one to feel that today’s achievements will be there tomorrow. I can live my life building up my character and fulfilling my potential because I know that G-d is presenting me with an orderly unfolding of  challenges I face today are perfectly designed by G-d to further that potential. I know also that there is an ultimate destination – the World to Come – where I will truly enjoy the fruits of my labor. If this world is all we have, we are stuck with hoping that we might be one of the lucky ones. Not every story in this world has a happy ending. Without faith in the World to Come we are stuck telling the pessimist that his narrative makes the most sense. With it, it is a different story.

Reishit Chochma tells us an amazing thing. Because the World to Come is a place of pure joy, joy of any sort creates a greater resonance between ourselves and that ultimate spirituality.  Eliyahu Hanavi saw two happy people and immediately said that they were   Bnei Olam Haba[25]. When he saw two Jews having an argument he would share a joke with them to open up their hearts as the first step in resolving their conflict.[26] We are, it seems, hardwired to associate even the passing flash of laughter with a greater feeling of closeness to others. That, in fact is a spiritual not just a psychological phenomenon.  Reishit Chochma actually holds it a halacha to start a shiur with a joke so that students will learn in joy.[27]

But here’s the rub. You can’t make happiness the goal. It is a consequence, not a goal. פקודי ד’ ישרים משמחי לב – the commands of God are just; they cause joy to the heart[28].  We don’t engage in the מצוות in order to have joy.  It is rather the result of feeling spiritually meaningful.  Happiness as a consequence means it will evade you if you aim for it. As Victor Frankl would have it, “The very “pursuit of happiness” is what thwarts it [because] … precisely by so doing he loses site of the reason for happiness, and happiness itself must fade away.”[29]

Joy can be a consequence. It can also be an instrument – a tool in our Avodah-arsenal.   The more joyously we do a Mitzvah, the greater the Mitzvah![30]  עבדו את ד’ בשמחה –Serve God in joy. [31]  תחת אשר לא עבדת את ד’ אלקיך בשמחה is usually understood to mean, “When things went well, we didn’t have joy” But the full verse – right there in the pshat – is that we did not use simcha to serve GodWe disconnected our Simcha from our Avoda.

The wealthy are not rich and the poor are not poor. The person who is happy with his lot is rich and the person who is not is poor.[32] Happiness is a feeling – it is not a sum of money. The good news is that this tells us that directives of the Torah are instructions on how to live a life of joy.[33] Bitachon simplifies things greatly.  ‘G-d made humans very straightforward, but they made life complicated‘, Shlomo HaMelech tells us.[34]  It is these ‘complications’, says Rav Hirsch, which are the enemies of happiness. Seen this way, joy is lurking menacingly below the surface, threatening to seep into our Avodat HaShem – if only we would let it.


[1] The language is a reflection of the culture, but the language in turn helps to formulate the thinking which will produce that culture to begin with. The relationship between the two is a subject of a great debate amongst linguists.

[2]  Rav Yehuda Ibn Tibon, the great translator of many of the Rishonim from Arabic to Hebrew, pointed out that most of the Hebrew language has been lost. He was forced to develop a whole dictionary of new words for his translation (contained in the back of his translation of the Moreh Nevuchim.)   Pachad Yitzchak points out that there used to be a seperate word for the same action done in holy and more mundane contexts, like to lift up: להרים connotes holy activity and להגביה does not.

[3] His 2002 book was entitled, The Question of Happiness: On Finding Meaning, Pleasure and the Ultimate Currency.

[7]  http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/05/how-happiness-changes-with-age/276274/

Youth  described experiences of happiness as being times when they felt excited, ecstatic, or elated and that older people were more inclined to describe happy experiences as moments of feeling peaceful, relaxed, calm, or relieved.

[8] An earlier article appeared in the June, 2009 edition of The Atlantic covering  the Grant Study, one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development. The project, which began in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 75 years, measuring an astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits in an effort to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing.

[9] See David Sosa, in The Stone of the NY Times, October 6, 2010, Happiness

[10]  This can be called ” the waiting for Godot syndrome”. Harold Pinter wrote a play about three men who did nothing the entire play but wait for a man called Godot to come.

[11] It’s All About Who, Morton L. Mandel with John A. Byrner. Jossey-Bass, 2013, pg. 159

[12]  Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, Shlit”a

[13] רב צדוק הכהן, מחשבות חרוץ, ס’ א

[14] שם, וכן בשל”ה

[15] Indeed, the reason that these things bring us happiness is more substantive than buying a new toy (an iPhone) or clothes, or furniture is because they usually represent real progress. Even buying a house is a sign of our now taking responsibility for ourselves – a stage of life.

[16] שער השמחה

וכן בראשית חכמה, שער האהבה, פ’ יב: והנה בענין השמחה כבר ביארנו שמתוך  הבטחון והאמונה תבא השמחה

[17] מסכת ברכות דף ס עמ’ ב (מעשה של רבי עקיבא)

[18] מהר”ל, נתיב הבטחון, פ”א:  כשהוא בוטח בו יתברך א”כ הוא מוסר עצמו אל השם 

[19] מהר”ל, גור אריה, במדבר כ יב:  כי האמונה הוא מי שבוטח בו יתברך, אין לו בו רק שמחה

ושם: והיה למשה ולאהרן להתחדש באמונה ובטחון יתירה, ואז היו עושים בשמחה (והם) עם הנס הגדול שעשה השם, שהיה ראוי לחדש להם אמונה ובטחון בו יתברך, והיה ראוי להם להוסיף אמונה ובטחון, והיה ראוי להם השמחה.

[20] מהר”ל, נתיב הבטחון, פ”א: , כי הבטחון הוא על השכל

[21] In this world view שבע יפול צדיק וקם – a Tzadik falls seven times and gets up (משלי כד טז: כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם ורשעים יכשלו ברעה.) does not mean “Even though he falls, nevertheless he gets up again” but that hemust fall seven times to become the Tzadik.” Falling is a part of the process. Every fall is potentially a step closer to perfection.

[22] ראשית חכמה, שם: כי העבד הבוטח באדונו ומאמין שישלם לו שכר עבודתו כפלי כפלים יעבוד בשמחה והוא שמח בכל מקום שיגזר עליו, וכן הוא סובל כל דבר כגון החולה שיאכל סמים שהם מרים בשביל הרפואה והסובל הוא חפשי מדאגות העולם.

[23] מהר”ל, גור אריה, במדבר כ יב: כי מי שאינו מאמין ובוטח בו יתברך בבטחון גמור, הוא בכעס ובמכאובות

[24] מהר”ל, נתיב הבטחון, פ”א: כי המפחד הפך הבוטח בו ית’

[25] ראשית חכמה, שם:עוד יש תועלת בשמחה כמו (תענית פרק ג) שני אנשים שאמר עליהן אליהו שהם מבני העולם הבא בשביל שהיו אנשים שמחנים

[26] ראשית חכמה, שם: וכשהיו רואים איש עצב היו משמחין אותו וכשהיו רואים שנים מתקוטטים זה עם זה היו אומרים להם מילי דבדיחותא עד שהיו עושין שלום ביניהם

[27] ראשית חכמה, שם: וכן לענין הלכה מתחלה מילי דבדיחותא לפתוח הלב ללמוד בשמחה

[28] תהלים יט

[29]  Victor Frankl, The Will to Meaning, pg. 33. – 34

[30] רמב”ם הל’ תלמוד תורה פ”ג הל’ יג,

ובהל’ תשובה פ”ט, הל’ א: הבטיחנו בתורה שאם נעשה אותה בשמחה ובטובת נפש ונהגה בחכמתה תמיד שיסיר ממנו כל הדברים המונעים אותנו

[31] תהלים ק

[32] פרקי אבות פרק ד משנב א: איזהוא עשיר השמח בחלקו

מסכת שבת כה: תנו רבנן איזה עשיר כל שיש לו נחת רוח בעשרו דברי רבי מאיר

[33] חכמה ומוסר חלק ב ס’ קצו (עמוד שנה- סוף העמוד):   ירגיש עונג נפלא משמירת התורה

[34] קהלת ז כט: לבד ראה זה מצאתי אשר עשה האלהים את האדם ישר והמה בקשו חשבנות רבים:

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