If you ask people what they want in life, they will most probably answer with one word: “happiness.” Many people’s lives are centered around this goal. Every big decision, such as whom we marry, where we live, the jobs we take, the people we interact with, and the smaller decisions, such as what we eat, how we dress, how much sleep we get, are made with the goal of attaining a greater state of joy and happiness. However, we often find people who appear set up for happiness but are living a life stuck in misery, and people who seem destined for a life of anguish, but they are living lives of great happiness.
We all know that person – let’s call him Yoni – who is good looking, comes from a very wealthy family, and always had the best of everything in life. He is skilled, capable, funny, and extremely popular amongst his peers. Nevertheless, Yoni spends his entire adult life in and out of drug rehab centers, dealing with non-ending cycles of depression and addiction. How did this happen?
Then there is Eli, a boy whose father passed away when he was just three years old. His mother was constantly struggling to make ends meet – luxuries were out of the question. At the age of six, Eli’s doctor discovered a severe heart defect that left Eli in and out of hospitals his entire childhood. After living a life of extreme poverty with very limited opportunity, Eli was able to create an extraordinary life for himself and is the happiest person you will ever meet.
What is the difference between Yoni and Eli? What is the root of happiness and how can we achieve this elusive state? But more fundamentally, is happiness even a Jewish value? We live in a world that defines success in life as achieving happiness. Is happiness the ultimate Jewish goal? Or is it the means of achieving our goals? What exactly is the Jewish approach to happiness?
Cursed for Not Being Happy?
In this week’s parshah, B’Chukosai, the Torah lists the many curses that will befall klal Yisrael if they do not observe Hashem’s commandments. Later on in the Torah, when describing these terrible curses, Hashem tells us that the reason we will receive them is because we did not serve Him with happiness (Parshas Ki Savo – D’varim 28:47). Additionally, the pasuk in T’hilim states, “Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah” (100:2) – Serve Hashem with happiness. Clearly, happiness is, in fact, a Jewish value. The question now becomes, what is the deep nature of happiness, and how does our lack of happiness warrant these terrible curses to befall us?
Pleasure vs. Happiness
Happiness should not be confused with pleasure. Pleasure is instant gratification, a fleeting sensation that is gone as quickly as it comes. Unhealthful food, wasted time spent on meaningless entertainment, and other quick fixes all fit into the category of pleasure. The moment you’ve finished enjoying pleasure, it fades away.
Happiness is of a fundamentally different nature and fits into a different category altogether. True happiness is what you experience when you are working towards becoming the person you are meant to be. When you use your challenges as a means to grow, when you expand as a person and achieve constant internal growth, that is happiness. You needn’t be smiling at every step of the way, for genuine growth usually involves significant pain and hardship. However, as long as you know that you are heading where you need to go, that you are building the person you are meant to become, then even with that pain comes a feeling of happiness. External displays of success pale in comparison to the joy of internal progress necessary for true existential happiness.
The essential complementary component of happiness is a deep sense of self-esteem. Genuine self-esteem stems from knowing who you are, what you must become, and the fact that you are on your way to becoming that person. When you know that you are fulfilling your potential and becoming the very best you can be, you will have such a rich sense of self-worth that you will glow with confidence and positivity. Let us expand our understanding of this topic by developing three keys to happiness.
Growth and Self-Expansion
As we begin developing, growth is the underlying root of deep existential happiness. When you are growing and maximizing your potential, fulfilling your purpose, you feel happy! This is because the deepest human desire is to express our unique purpose in this world.
The Baalei Machshavah explain that all happiness stems from self-expansion. This is because Hashem is the all-encompassing creator of this world, and each of us, as a tzelem Elokim, has an infinite root, as well. As we expand ourselves, we tap into our root oneness and feel existential happiness as we do so. We experience this truth in our everyday lives. When you expand your mind by understanding a new Torah concept, understanding something new about the universe, human psychology, or about yourself, you experience a deep state of joy. The same is true when expanding your inner awareness of self or when expanding past boundaries and becoming a greater version of yourself. The greatest paradigm of self-expansion is when you expand your sense of self to include others. Marriage is the ultimate opportunity for this, and having children allows for both you and your spouse to collectively expand out into the world even further. However, all forms of giving to others, whether it’s giving time, love, money, or anything else, is a form of self-expansion that allows you to expand your sense of self to include others.
There is an essential aspect of this category of happiness that is crucial to understand. Many people believe that growth and personal development will one day result in happiness. The mistake they make is thinking that happiness will only come once they reach their destination, once they achieve total perfection. As a result, they end up miserable, longing for a goal they will never achieve. This is because true perfection is impossible, we will never be perfect, we will never be a finished product, we will never be “done.” These people often give up, or at the very least, rush the process for the sake of reaching the end. The key is learning to enjoy the process of growth. There are always extremes, those who refuse to strive for perfection, and those who blindly chase after a state of perfection that can never exist. Once you realize that the goal of self-perfection is only there as a direction, as a means to create the journey of growth and self-development, you can find happiness in the process of becoming. We will never be perfect, but that’s okay; the goal is to become more and more perfect. The vision and goal is important, but only because it helps create your journey of self-improvement. Happiness is when you live fully in the present moment of growth and becoming, enjoying every step of the process. In truth, you will never be “happy,” fully satisfied, and in a state of existential bliss. You should constantly be happier, as you embark on the journey of growth and becoming. The goal is not to be, it’s to become.
The second key to happiness is mindset. The same letters that make up the word b’simchah – happiness – form the word machshavah – thought. This is because your thoughts, mindset, and attitude have a tremendous impact on your internal state of being. No matter how much you are growing and achieving, without the right attitude and mindset, you will not be happy. As simple as it sounds, making the decision to be happy is one of the greatest strategies to achieving happiness. We all know people who wait around for something great to “happen” to them, claiming that only when “such and such” happens will they be happy. Proactively deciding to be happy, for no external reason at all, can fundamentally change the way you perceive happiness.
There is, of course, a deeper layer to this. When you apply the principle of hakaras ha’tov – gratitude and recognition of all the good in your life – it fundamentally changes your perspective and allows you to see things as they truly are. In truth, we don’t deserve to be alive in the first place. We never earned the right to exist. There was no guarantee that we would wake up today and there is no guarantee that we will wake up tomorrow. There are lots of people who were here yesterday, and they’re not here today. Our life is a gift, a constant gift from Hashem. If we could genuinely feel the joy, gratitude, and explosion of bliss that comes from this realization, our lives would never be the same.
Becoming Part of Something Greater Than Yourself
The last key to happiness is recognizing that the goal of life is not only self-perfection, but devoting all of your self-development into something greater than yourself, contributing it to klal Yisrael. When you are able to get outside of yourself and focus on becoming part of the klal, part of the collective community, you automatically feel an inner sense of happiness. This is why happiness is connected to the chagim in which the Jewish people were oleh regel – when they are joined together as a collective whole in Eretz Yisrael. When we can expand beyond our own personal struggles and problems and become devoted to others, our worries fade away and what takes its place is a rich sense of inner peace.
Serving Hashem with Happiness
We now understand what it means to serve Hashem with happiness. It is when we realize that being a true eved Hashem – devoting our life to Hashem – is our purpose in life and should be the focus of all our self-development. We can only be miserable while serving Hashem when we view it as a burden; when we do it robotically, out of habit, just going through the motions. When this happens, Hashem sends us challenges through the form of the curses as a wake-up call. It is only when we realize that the only way to fulfill our purpose and actualize our potential is by completely devoting ourselves to Hashem, to our root, to our source, that we can truly be happy. Happiness is neither a means nor an end; it’s what manifests when you are becoming the person you are destined to become. In essence, happiness is a revelation that you are on the right track.
Yoni and Eli are two different people with two different life circumstances. We don’t get to control our circumstances; we choose only how to respond. Happiness is not the goal of life, living a life of truth is. But happiness is still important; it is the gift Hashem gives you when you are heading on the right path towards your correct goals in life. It is there to help you continue down the right path. Happiness comes from growth, from enjoying the process, from the right mindset, and from devoting our life towards something greater than ourselves. May we be inspired to serve Hashem with genuine happiness and enjoy the process of becoming the very best that we can be.