If you ask the average person what he wants in life, he will likely answer with one word: happiness. Many people’s lives are centered around this goal. The big decisions, such as who we marry, where we live, the jobs we take, the people we interact with, as well as the smaller decisions, such as what we eat, how we dress, or how much sleep we get, are often made with the goal of attaining a greater level of joy and happiness. However, we often find people who appear set up for happiness living a life stuck in misery, and people who seem destined for a life of anguish 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 has 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 never-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 constantly struggled to make ends meet; luxuries were out of the question. At the age of six, Eli’s doctor discovered a 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 source 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 simply a Western value that has been imposed upon our view of Judaism? What is the Jewish approach to happiness?
Cursed for Not Being Happy?
The Torah lists the many curses that will befall klal Yisrael if they do not observe Hashem’s commandments. When describing these terrible curses, Hashem informs us that we will receive these punishments because we did not serve Him with happiness (D’varim 28:47). Additionally, the pasuk in T’hilim states, “Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah – Serve Hashem with happiness” (T’hilim 100:2). It seems, then, that happiness is, in fact, a Jewish value. What then is the deep nature of happiness, and how does a lack of happiness warrant these terrible curses?
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, meaningless entertainment, and other quick fixes may give us a few moments of fleeting pleasure, but the instant we are finished, the pleasure completely disappears; there is no lasting feeling of pleasure.
Happiness is of a fundamentally different nature. True happiness is what you experience when you are actualizing your potential, working toward becoming the person you are meant to become. When you use your challenges as a means to grow, when you expand as a person and achieve constant internal growth, it creates an inner state of existential happiness. You needn’t be smiling every step of the way, for genuine growth often involves significant pain and hardship. However, as long as you know that you are progressing along the right path and that you are building the person you are meant to become, even the pain is accompanied by a feeling of happiness. External displays of success pale in comparison to the joy of true internal progress and growth. Let us expand our understanding of this topic by developing three keys to happiness.
As we have stated, growth is the underlying root of deep existential happiness. This is because the deepest human desire is to express our unique purpose in this world. We therefore experience incredible happiness when we are growing and maximizing our potential, fulfilling our purpose.
The baalei machashavah 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, resulting in a feeling of existential happiness. 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 pushing 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 outwards into the world even further. However, all forms of giving to others – whether it be giving time, love, money, or anything else – are self-expansion that allow 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, i.e., 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, and 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 extremists: 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 are important, but only inasmuch as 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 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. In our next article, we will delve more deeply into this fascinating topic and try to understand it on an ever more profound level, developing two more layers of happiness.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.