OU Tehillim Wide

Defining Happiness The Jewish Way

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Nov 27, 2022
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לע"נ בתיה בת מרדכי ולהיבדל בין חיים לחיים לזכות נעכא גיטל בת ר' חיים צבי וכל הנלווים אליה.
 
"תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' א-להיך בשמחה"
 
We start with a quote from the "Atlantic" [the website - not the ocean]:

What does it mean to be “happy”?

Our Declaration of Independence, an awesome foundational document, famously lists “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our three inalienable rights—the only one complex enough to warrant an entire verbal clause. Unlike life and liberty, which are fixed qualities, our Founding Fathers seemed to think of happiness as something to pursue rather than possess. Indeed, the word itself seems to represent the end goal of almost every human pursuit. But what exactly does it mean, this symbolic objective of all earthly activity? It certainly encompasses a range of good vibes, from blissful peace to manic ecstasy. But the word’s etymological journey reveals some common qualities, which have helped me on my journey to absolute blissful contentment (I am never sad).


In addition to famously being a warm gun, happiness comes to modern English from my favorite syllable in all of Old Norse, hap, which, if you ever find yourself in 13th-century Scandinavia, can be used to mean “chance, luck, fortune, or fate.” A potent and mischievous root word, hap has weaseled its way into English across grammatical categories, from perhaps (literally, “through fate”) to haphazard (“dangerous chance”) to hapless (“lacking luck”). My favorite happy cognate comes to us from the verbified version of the Old Norse word—to make anything into a verb, Vikings would just add -en, giving us happen as hap’s active form. What happens is literally just chance in action.

Our happy, then, just pops on the classic adjectival suffix -y, which, in effect, appends “full of” to whatever it’s attached to. Lucky people are full of luck. Stinky people are full of stink. So happy people must be full of … fate? Luck? Chance? Fortune? In his book Happiness: A History, the historian Darrin McMahon writes that “in every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck.” Our linguistics seems to be telling us something about existence, עכ"ד.

 
This is GRRREEAAATTTT because it illustrates EXACTLY what happiness should NOT be according to the Torah!!
 
Happiness is not about "luck". Happiness is not about what "happens". That is the way most people think and live. If things are going well - health, parnassa, family etc. etc. they are happy. If things going badly [i.e. their expectations are not being me] -- unhappy. This is a major mistake, because for one reason among many others - we are often not going to be so fortunate. There is always, but always, something in life [actually numerous things in life], that are not going to be as we wish. Examples: EVERY JOB has something about it a person won't like [it could even be the trip to work or the fact that we would rather be with our family]. Relationships - Everybody has relationships in their lives that are less than perfect. I would venture to say that ALL of our relationships are less than perfect.  Even when a person makes a simcha - things go wrong, there is often stress, it is very costly etc. etc. The list goes on. There is no end to the things in life that could be "wrong". So people who hinge their happiness on 'happenstance' will most likely be unhappy much or all of the time. [Waiter approaches a table of old ladies in the Catskills and asks "Is anything OK?"]. That is besides that fact that lottery winners - the "LUCKIEST" - aren't happier than the rest of us.  
 
"Receiving a massive influx of cash may seem like instant gratification, but research has shown that winning a lottery may increase life satisfaction but may not affect general happiness.

The odds of winning a Mega Millions jackpot is 1 in 303 million — while the odds of winning at least $1 million are about 1 in 12.6 million.

For the lucky few who do manage to snag a winning ticket, they will likely experience an increase in life satisfaction that can persist for over a decade, with no evidence of that decreasing over time.

However, the effect on a person’s happiness and mental health after winning a lottery is more mixed, with research showing increases are usually smaller and not statistically significant.

Those are findings that researchers from New York University and Stockholm University in Sweden came to after studying more than 400 people who had won lotteries in Sweden from 1998 to 2011.

“We find that winning large sums of money strongly affects how content you are with your personal finances. But it does not affect how you feel about other aspects of life, such as your health, or your relationships with friends and family,” said Erik Lindqvist, one of the researchers behind the study.

Lindqvist’s team found clear evidence that wealth improves people’s evaluation of their lives as a whole — suggesting that improved financial circumstances is an important component behind increasing people’s life satisfaction.

Happiness is notably different, as researchers explained it’s a concept that differs in interpretation from person to person.

“Exactly how people evaluate their happiness we cannot know, but I would think that it is strongly related to how they feel at the moment. To be satisfied with your life, on the other hand, is perhaps more about having what you think you can demand of life,” said Lindqvist.

An infusion of cash may help people with their personal finances, but it may not affect how they feel about other aspects of their life, like health or relationships with friends and family.

Some of the first research conducted on lottery winners was published back in 1978, and that also found no statistically significant differences between lottery winners and non-winners in terms of happiness. [From "The Hill"]
 
So how does one achieve happiness, as we are commanded by the Torah to do so??
 
Writes the Rav ztz"l:
 
 
 
"שנואה היא העצבות, מפני שהיא נובעת ממקור היותר משחת שבדעות וברגשות. הידיעה, שהאדם בהתגלותו בתור בעל רצון, אופיו משתלם כולו בנקודת רצונו דוקא, האושר שלו הוא רצון טוב, כל קוי האושר וההצלחות הרוממות, שלב כל אדם כל כך עורג להם, אינם כי אם תולדות מנקודת חיים מלאים זו, נקודת הרצון הטוב הקדוש והבהיר,ובתוכן זה דומה האדם בחופשו ליוצרו, ליוצר כל, בחפצו המקיף והחפשי מכל מועקה, כשידיעה זו מתבררת, מיד מוצא האדם את עצמו מלא חדוה, מסולק מכל עצבות. הוא מכיר שהוא אינו צריך כי אם לאמץ את רצונו לטוב, וזה מסור בידו בכל עת ורגע, ותיכף כשרצונו מתעלה, הרי הוא מתעלה, וכל הספירות העולמיות התלויות בו מתעלות עמו. ואיך לא יהיה האדם מלא תמיד עז וחדוה, אם טובת הטובות, עושר העשירות, הצלחת ההצלחות, מסור ונתון בידו, והוא מושל בכל המכמנים הנפלאים האצורים באוצר נחמד ושמן זה. המחשבה שהאושר תלוי במה שהוא חוץ ליכולתו של האדם ממה שהוא חוץ להווייתו וחוץ לרצונו מחשבת פיגול הוא, רשעות וסכלות היא מרופדת, והיא מעוררת את כל התכונות השפלות וכל המדות הרעות שביסוד הרשעה שכחת ד' וטובו אורו וישעו חכמתו חסדו וגבורתו, על כן ישרי לב שמחים תמיד, שמחו בה' וגילו צדיקים והרנינו כל ישרי לב" [שמונה קבצים ג' נ"א].
 
Sadness is despised because it comes from a corrupt place of philosophy and emotion. When a person realizes that his happiness depends on his good will and that it is totally under his control [because who is stopping you from desiring to be good] - he is filled with joy and expels all sadness. When one elevates his will to desire what is good - and one can do this any second of any day - he is elevated and all of the spiritual worlds to which he is connected, are elevated with him. That fact that he is so empowered, that essentially the most important thing in life [everything else pales in comparison] of elevating himself and all of his contingent worlds to Hashem, is completely dependent on his state of mind and desire, should fill a person with an overwhelming sense of unmitigated joy - mortgage payments notwithstanding. 
 
As the Rav wrote in the aforementioned passage [my feeble translation]: "The thought that one's happiness is not under one's control and depends on what happens in the external world and not one one's will is a false, specious, evil thought. It arouses within a person all of the negative character traits; causes one to forget Hashem, His goodness, salvation, wisdom, kindness and might. Therefore, those of an upright heart are always happy. Be glad in Hashem, you righteous; And shout for joy, all you that are upright in heart." [Tehillim 97-12].  
 
In other words - happiness is NOT dependent on external factors but on one's will. האושר שלו הוא רצון טוב - Happiness is desiring what is good and everything emanates from that.
 
"ישמח לב מבקשי השם"
 
The very fact that one desires to seek out and develop a relationship with Hashem, is in and of itself, a cause for unbridled joy.  
 
וצדיקים ישמחו יעלצו לפני ד' וישישו בשמחה." [שמונה קבצים א-ר"א]
 
Just like the world is in constant flux, so too is the essence of reality in a state of constant joy!!! שמחה היא ההויה פנימית כולה. Happiness is the inner existence of everything. The grind of daily life often brings us down so we cultivate hope for the future. "When I get married..." "When I get that job....." "When I buy that house....." "When my health improves....". That is OK. One should never lose hope that things will improve. But one's sense of happiness must not be predicated on a change of his circumstances -  especially since sometimes his hopes are dashed. When one's spirit in enlarged, he realizes that his happiness should be predicated on השמחה ההויית - the happiness of existence. Hashem is כביכול [not His essence as לית מחשבה תפיסא ביה כלל - we know nothing of His essence], happy Himself. עז וחדוה במקומו - Strength and joy are in His place.

 

 אֵין לְשַׁעֵר וְאֵין לְהַעֲרִיךְ אֶת גְּדֻלַּת הָאֹשֶׁר, שֶׁצָּרִיךְ הָאָדָם לָחוּשׁ בְּעַצְמוֹ, בְּרֹב קֹרַת רוּחַ, מִתּוֹךְ אוֹתוֹ הַצַּעַר הֶעָדִין הַמְצַעֵר אוֹתוֹ בְּעֵת אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ הַקְּדֻשָּׁה וְהַטָּהֳרָה שֶׁל הַתְּשׁוּבָה חָל עָלָיו, בָּעֵת שֶׁהוּא הוֹלֵךְ וּמְשׁוֹטֵט בָּרַעְיוֹן הַבּוֹעֵר בְּאֹשֶׁר שֶׁל חֲרָטָה גְּמוּרָה עַל כָּל חֲטָאָיו וַעֲווֹנוֹתָיו וּפְשָׁעָיו, בְּעֵת שֶׁנִּשְׁמָתוֹ מִתְרַפֶּקֶת בְּאַהֲבָה עַל הוֹד הַקְּדֻשָּׁה וְהַשְּׁלֵמוּת, מִתְרַפֶּקֶת עַל דּוֹדָהּ יוֹצְרָהּ וּמְחוֹלְלָהּ מְחוֹלֵל כֹּל בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בְּעֵת שֶׁבְּכָל לֵב וּבְכָל נֶפֶשׁ רוֹצֶה הָאָדָם בְּעֹמֶק שֶׁל חֵפֶץ אַדִּיר לִהְיוֹת הוֹלֵךְ בְּתֹם וּבְיֹשֶׁר, לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק פּוֹעֵל צְדָקוֹת, לִהְיוֹת יָשָׁר הוֹלֵךְ נְכוֹחוֹת. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהוּא מִתְלַבֵּט מְאֹד אֵיךְ לְהוֹצִיא אֶת רַגְלָיו מִתּוֹךְ הַבֹּץ שֶׁל הַחֲטָאִים, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא נִתְבָּרֵר לוֹ כְּלָל וּכְלָל אֵיךְ מְתַקְּנִים אֶת הֶעָבָר כֻּלּוֹ, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהַדְּרָכִים הַמַּעֲשִׂיִּים אֵינָם עֲדַיִן כְּלָל סְלוּלִים לְפָנָיו, וְאַבְנֵי נֶגֶף הֵם מְלֵאִים, אֲבָל הָרָצוֹן לִהְיוֹת טוֹב - זֶהוּ רוּחַ גַּן עֵדֶן אֱלֹהִים, הַמְנַשֵּׁב בַּנְּשָׁמָה וּמְמַלֵּא אוֹתָהּ אֹשֶׁר אֵין קֵץ, עַד אֲשֶׁר גַּם אֵשׁ הַגֵּיהִנֹּם שֶׁל הַצַּעַר הֶעָמֹק מִתְהַפֵּךְ גַּם הוּא לְנַחַל עֲדָנִים. [אורות התשובה ט" ג']
 
It doesn't matter how much one has sinned [which, as the the Rav writes in אורות התשובה, is the source of tremendous pain. Sinners are unhappy people], it doesn't even matter if a person hasn't yet figured out how to extricate himself from the mud of sinful behavior, the very fact that one has a burning desire to return to Hashem, is a taste of Gan Eden!!!!   
 
You are happy because you are a reflection of Hashem in this world and He loves you. Nobody in world history has ever been like you nor will anyone ever be like you. You have a special life task that NOBODY else has and nobody can fulfill. You are a Jew - chosen from all the nations of the earth. You are happy because you realize that nothing external can determine your mood and feelings  - everything depends on what happens not on the outside but in those few inches in between your two ears.
 
There is so much more to say but this is definitely food for thought and hopefully will rewire our brains to thinking in spiritually and emotionally healthier ways.
 
 
 
 

 

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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Ruth Peyser Kestenbaum and Miriam & Alan Goldberg to mark the tenth yahrtzeit of their father, Irwin Peyser, Harav Yisroel Chaim ben R' Dovid V' Fraidah Raizel Peyser