Happiness is a universal human longing, yet so many people are despondent. Despite the American constitutional right to the “pursuit of happiness,” Psychology Today reported in a March 2011 feature, The American Nightmare, that contentment remains elusive for many:
A raft of reports on well-being, including the World Values Survey and the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, suggest it’s not better at all. ‘We the people’ have grown continuously more depressed over the last half-century. A recent analysis of the World Database of Happiness, covering the years 1946 to 2006, found rising happiness levels in 19 of 26 countries around the world; the United States was not one of them. As Andrew Oswald, who studies the intersection of economics and happiness at the University of Warwick, in Britain, states, “The U.S.A. has, in aggregate, apparently become more miserable over the last quarter of a century.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on September 9, 2016 that it’s unrealistic to achieve happiness by identifying one’s “passion in life” and expect all aspects of your life to fall into place:
A series of studies conducted in 2002-09 at the Stanford Center on Adolescence (surveying over 1,200 subjects and published in various academic journals) found that only about 20% of young people between 12 and 26 have a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish in life, and why. Only 27% of college graduates work in a job related to their major within just a few years of graduation. The truth is, most people don’t have a singular motivator that drives all of their life decisions.
The article concludes, “If you don’t know what your passion is, that’s great news. Because you don’t have to know “what to do with your life”—you only have to do what’s next. Be curious. Try stuff. Think like a designer and build your future, prototype by prototype.
The challenge is then, where do we gain the tools to “design” a happy, fulfilled life? David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote in June 2009 that there is no formal training for the most critical decisions determining our happiness in life:
The most important decision any of us make is who we marry. Yet there are no courses on how to choose a spouse. There’s no graduate department in spouse selection studies. Institutions of higher learning devote more resources to semiotics than love. The most important talent any person can possess is the ability to make and keep friends. And yet here too there is no curriculum for this. The most important skill a person can possess is the ability to control one’s impulses. Here too, we’re pretty much on our own.
These are all things with a provable relationship to human happiness. Instead, society is busy preparing us for all the decisions that have a marginal effect on human happiness. There are guidance offices to help people in the monumental task of selecting a college. There are business schools offering lavish career placement services. There is a vast media apparatus offering minute advice on how to furnish your home or expand your deck. To get information on private affairs, you have to go down-market to Oprah or Dr. Phil. Why are they the ones who have access to information on meeting life’s vital needs?
In Parshas Ki Savo, upon offering the Bikkurim, the first fruits in Yerushalyim, the individual bringing his produce declares, “You shall rejoice with the goodness that the Lord, your God has given to you and your household…” (Devarim 26:11)
The Torah teaches that it is a mitzvah to be happy, and therefore it must be possible to achieve. How? Judaism has a number of practical approaches to being genuinely happy. These approaches are not the hedonism and self-indulgence that are so popular in the West, but rather they are grounded in an appreciation of the opportunities within life itself, knowing that each moment can be infused with meaning and utilized to move closer to building a relationship with God and realizing our goals in life. An indication of the importance that Judaism attaches to joy is seen by the fact that biblical Hebrew contains close to ten synonyms for happiness!
The NLE Morasha Syllabus shiur on the Jewish Vision of Happiness will examine the following questions:
- With all the material wealth people possess, why are they not happier?
- Does Judaism offer anything to add happiness to my life?
- What is the connection between the meaning of life and happiness?
- Are there practical exercises to help one become happier?
- How can the mitzvot contribute to a person’s happiness?
- How can one avoid obstacles to happiness such as worry and jealousy?