When the Founding Fathers included the pursuit of happiness as an American right and entitlement, it is almost as if they conceded that happiness can be pursued, but it is unlikely to ever be attained. If you look around, you can’t help but notice that for many, the pursuit has grown tiring and indeed, many have given up. In the last twenty years, there has been an astounding increase in antidepressant use by Americans. One might even suggest that the growing effort to legalize marijuana nationally is driven by a community eager to find pleasure and happiness, even if it is by escaping reality.
In 2006, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a book called “Stumbling on Happiness.” In it, he argues that the things and experiences we typically predict and imagine will bring us happiness, rarely do. Rather, he says, happiness is elusive, and we should learn from how others have stumbled upon it. The first part of his thesis is undeniable. Study after study has concluded that money, fame, and power not only don’t contribute to happiness, but often are obstacles to and detractors from experiencing it. So how do we finally attain it?
1) Happiness is not an emotion; it is a decision. Stop waiting passively to feel it and start actively choosing to be it.
In Parshas Ki Savo, the Torah says, u’vau kol ha’berachos ha’eleh, v’hisigucha, which literally translates as “All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you.” What does it mean v’hisigucha, to be overtaken by blessing? Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin explains that Hashem gives each of us beracha, blessing in our lives. That blessing can manifest itself in all types of form – material possessions, meaningful relationships, special skills, wonderful opportunities, family, and the list could go on and on. The first blessing is the particular gift. But even more important and an even greater blessing is v’hisigucha…to recognize, appreciate and acknowledge the blessing.
Simcha, happiness, occurs when we make the decision to focus on the blessings in our lives, no matter how challenging or formidable the struggles we face simultaneously. If our happiness results from the blessings we already have, we can always find happiness because we always have at least something. But if our happiness is determined by what we don’t have, “If only I had more money, a nicer house, a better job, a more loving spouse, more loyal children, etc.” we will never be happy because we can always have more. Therefore, by definition, there will always be something we don’t have.
The decision to be b’simcha, happy, doesn’t only affect us but it can positively influence our environment and family. Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician at Harvard Medical School, authored a study that concludes that happiness, scientifically speaking, is literally contagious. The same way a person yawning causes others to also begin to yawn, when one person smiles or is happy, it is infectious and draws smiles and happiness from others.
It has been suggested homiletically that the etymology of the word simcha comes from sam-mo’ach, focus your thoughts. Make the decision to be happy and the feeling will follow.
2) Happiness comes from giving, not from getting. It comes from being a giver, not a taker.
After many years concentrating on what makes people depressed, social scientists are now beginning to study what makes people happy. Their answer is counter-intuitive. Paradoxically, it turns out the biggest obstacle to achieving happiness is our own pursuit of it. When happiness is defined by our needs, our wants, and our desires, it will remain elusive and unattainable for we will never have everything. Instead, studies show that people report better health and greater happiness when they volunteer for a worthwhile cause or spend time helping others. Moreover, studies have shown the efficacy of volunteering and helping in combating depression.
Happiness does not result from a focus inward, but it results from the deep satisfaction and profound gratification of imitating God and helping others. At the end of Hilchos Megillah (2:17), the Rambam makes an incredible comment. He asks, if a person has limited funds and has to choose between having a more lavish and luxurious Purim meal, more extravagant and impressive mishloach manos, or giving more matanos l’evyonim, money to the poor, what should he do and why?
The Rambam codifies that the resources should be dedicated to helping the indigent and poor because Purim is about simcha and there is no greater happiness than bringing joy to others, especially the underprivileged.
Someone once wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe z’l in a state of deep depression and hopelessness. The letter essentially said, “I would like the Rebbe's help. I wake up each day sad and apprehensive. I can't concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I keep the commandments, but I find no spiritual satisfaction. I go to the synagogue but I feel alone. I begin to wonder what life is about. I need help."
The Rebbe sent a brilliant reply back that did not use even a single word. He simply circled the first word of every sentence in the letter and sent it back. The author of the letter understood, and he was on the path to greater happiness and hope. The circled word at the beginning of each sentence was 'I'.
A self-centered person, a taker, can never be happy in life because they could never take enough. Givers find joy in doing for others and therefore have great access to happiness because there are always ample opportunities to give.
3) Surrender control and let go, let God.
Several summers ago, on a visit to Israel, I decided to go skydiving and to appreciate our homeland from a new perspective. After a comprehensive five minutes of instruction, I was taken up in a tiny plane that if I wasn’t crazy enough to jump out of, I was crazy to get into. With a soft helmet on, and goggles on my face, they placed me with my feet dangling off the side of the airplane. We were 12,000 feet in the air and the beautiful land of Israel was a fuzzy blur. I vividly remember leaning over and looking down and feeling like I couldn’t breathe.
Before I could have second thoughts, I felt a nudge and out the plane I went. I was heading towards Mother Earth travelling over 100 miles an hour. The wind was rushing all around me, my arms and legs were extended, and I think I tasted my spleen. For a brief moment, I felt panicked. “This is absolutely nuts, what kind of crazy, insane person does this?” I thought to myself. I started to get scared, worried and anxious and then I remembered.
Immediately behind me, attached by numerous metal latches and clips, was a big Israeli man who trains paratroopers in the Israeli army and who does these jumps around 8–10 times a day. We jumped in tandem and the moment I remembered that he literally had my back, I felt the biggest relief and was able to enjoy the rest of this remarkable experience.
The difference between a miserable, painful, anxious experience and the experience of my life, was remembering there was someone who had my back and who knew what he was doing. Six thousand feet and forty five seconds into the jump, he pulled the cord, the chute released, we sat up in the harness and for the next 10 minutes had the most extraordinary ride over Israel, checking out our magnificent homeland from the sky and giving Israel a huge virtual hug.
We need to take initiative, put forth our best efforts, and do everything we can to bring positive outcomes in our lives. However, believing that we can control and manipulate every outcome and result places impossible stress and pressure that preclude our ability to experience happiness. There is nothing more liberating, cathartic and joyful than doing our best, and then letting go of our need to control and allowing God do the rest.
No matter how hard we try and what kind of effort we produce, our lives are going to inevitably and invariably throw curveballs our way. The difference between panicking anxiously or enjoying the ride is our ability to let go. Perhaps this is what the pasuk means when it tells us, “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha, serve Hashem with joy.” The greatest service of Hashem is feeling the simcha that can only come by recognizing that He has our back so we can enjoy the ride.
Stop pursuing happiness and start experiencing it.