What is Happiness?

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From a Jewish perspective, happiness refers to a very specific emotional state.  What many people fail to understand is that happiness is only one of many pleasures that one can experience, such as joy, growth, power, creativity, doing the right thing, perseverance, discipline, change, learning, giving, love, and closeness to G-d.  In other words, to live a complete life, one must strive to integrate all these pleasures into one’s life, happiness being just one of them.

Judaism defines happiness as a feeling of contentment, or more specifically, being content with what one actually has.  This is based on the Talmudic saying:  “Who is rich?  The person who is content with her portion.”  The challenge of being happy is to feel consistently content.  Is this humanely possible?  I am aware of many contented cows, but I am not aware of many contented human beings.

The familiar technique for being happy is based on the well known half full–half empty glass metaphor.  The operative idea is that we always have a choice to see our lives as either half full or half empty.  In other words, we have a choice to either place our focus on what we have or what we lack.  If we focus on what we have, we will feel content and happy.  If we focus on what we lack, we will feel discontent and unhappy.  But staying consistently mindful of what we have is hard to do.

The reason why it’s difficult is that human beings, unlike cows, are wired with what seems like an endless list of longings, hopes, dreams, expectations, needs, wants, and desires.  As hard as I try to keep my mind focused on the full part of the glass, I find myself constantly sneaking glances at the part that’s empty!   And as soon as I start thinking about what I lack, I feel discontented with my life and start frantically trying to fill-up that half of my life that’s empty.

Human beings are ambitious.  We have a need to achieve, be creative, be productive, give to others, build, something meaningful.  How can one be content with half-actualized potential?  How can one be content with a half actualized life?  Every fiber of one’s being shouts, “I want more!  I need more!  I want greatness!  I can’t tolerate living a life of unrealized potential!”  And this is not to mention the multitude of material desires we have that we long to obtain!

And so we set our sights on getting all the things we lack believing that when we get what we desire, we will then feel content, satisfied, and happy.  But it never works!  And what’s even more outrageous is that we all know it doesn’t work, yet we keep trying to make it work.  Isn’t the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?  The rabbis knew it doesn’t work, long ago when they said, “A person doesn’t leave this world with half his desires satisfied.”  It doesn’t matter what the objects of our desires are, whether cars, money, a soul mate, success, knowledge, or insight, as long as we equate getting what we don’t have now with becoming happy, we will never feel content with our portions and die feeling unhappy and bitter.  Here’s the bottom line:  You can never turn a state of discontent into a state of contentment by striving to get what you lack.  The chocolate cake once eaten will provide a moment of satisfaction and quietude, but soon after it is eaten, one is trying to satisfy another unmet desire.  The desire-satisfy-desire-satisfy cycle can never result in a state of permanent contentment and happiness.

Judaism maintains that there is only one way to feel consistently content.  We must start with a full glass!  If we start with a full glass then the problem of focusing on what we lack is solved.  The Jewish model of happiness is based on the idea that the only way to build a life of contentment is to build it upon a foundation of contentment to begin with.  But how does one see one’s glass as always full?

The truth is our glasses are full right now!  We possess the world’s most precious commodity which is more valuable than diamonds, love, power, success, and wisdom.  We have life.  The challenge is to be able to feel how precious it is to be a living, conscious, thinking, willing being.   If we can learn how to experience, what I call, the joy of existence, we will never agonize and make ourselves sick over what we lack.

Here’s how to experience the joy of existence.  Many people have had a life crisis where they were afraid that their very life or quality of life might be lost.  Such an experience creates existential panic.  In this state of panic, the common response is to tell oneself, if I ever get out of this alive and return to a “normal” life, I will never complain again or take life for granted.  In this crisis state, one’s personal success, achievements, and desires seem petty and insignificant.  All one can think about is how great it would be to simply experience a regular, normal day again.  This clarity of how precious life is, is the experience of the joy of existence.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t last very long.  Soon after the crisis is over we are back to obsessing about what we lack and feeling dissatisfied with our lives once again.  How quickly we forget!

I was recently teaching a class to a group of young singles about the importance of appreciating what you have.  As an example, I was trying to convey how precious our hands are and how much pleasure they give us which we are usually unaware of.  One woman who seemed quite disinterested perked up when I asked, “So would you give-up your right hand for the man of your dreams?”  She looked straight at me and said, “Now that’s a heavy question.”  I continued and asked, “So would you?”  She said, “I really don’t know.”  “How about both hands?”  “No way,” she replied.

We know how much heart ache people go through trying to find Mr. or Mrs. Right , but is it worth losing the joy in being alive?  The choice I gave the young woman was trading hands for a husband not her life, which of course would be an absurd question to begin with.  But the point should be clear.  If two hands are so valuable, certainly, life itself is the ultimate good we possess and therefore should fill us with a deep feeling of contentment and happiness.

I suggest that you make a commitment to do a daily five minute meditation to experience the joy of existence.  These just might be the most valuable five minutes of your day.

The only way to be truly happy is to embrace the joy of existence and to build one’s life upon this experience.  When one values being alive, then one can increase one’s happiness by appreciating other good things one has (the old “count your blessings” technique); the more good we realize we have, the happier we will be and the empty part of the glass will become less seductive and problematic.  The goal is not to extinguish desire and ambition, but to subordinate them to the pleasure of the joy of existence.  Strive for the heavens but be happy in the process.  This is Judaism’s understanding of happiness.