I recently participated in a rabbinic seminar on positive psychology, a new field that aims to increase people’s happiness level. Positive psychology advocates argue that happiness, defined as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning,” is the “ultimate currency.” They argue that no pursuit is more important than contentment and satisfaction with one’s own life, and therefore one should prioritize those pursuits that enable him or her to experience positive emotions and feel a sense of purpose.
Needless to say, there was a great deal of skepticism among the rabbis. Was it not the Jewish tradition, after all, that inspired Woody Allen’s famous remark that life is “full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly”? Is Judaism not supposed to be about obedience, sacrifice, and suffering?
No doubt, this is how many Jews – led, perhaps, by their rabbis – experience Judaism: as unpleasant and meaningless. Far from contributing to happiness, many feel that Judaism denigrates joy and inhibits delight. It is no surprise, then, why many Jews today reject Judaism: we affirm that happiness is a right, that we should be free to pursue our own bliss, and feel entitled to choose those beliefs and practices that contribute to our happiness, while jettisoning those that do not. If Judaism doesn’t make us happier, then why bother?
But what if being Jewish and practicing Judaism could actually make us better off? Might that be a game-changer for today’s shrinking Jewish community? I believe so, for Judaism can only survive in our time if it offers a compelling path to bliss.
Fortunately, I believe that Judaism was always designed to help us flourish. In this spirit, I offer three ways that Judaism can help us be happier:
1. The Jewish people. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Ed Diener conducted a study wherein they compared people who described themselves as very happy with those who claimed to be unhappy. The only difference found between the two populations was that the “very happy” group also reported to have “rich and satisfying social relationships.” Thus, researchers concluded, people with many meaningful connections tend to be happier. From my own experience, I can vouch that friends and loved ones provide meaning, offer comfort, and facilitate more joyous experiences.
Judaism is a community- and relationship-oriented religion. Many Jewish practices require the presence of others, and the tradition encourages us to form meaningful relationships and immerse ourselves in community. “It is not good for a human to be alone,” it is written in Genesis. “Friendship or death,” asserts the Talmud, adding in another place, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Furthermore, the central stories of Judaism are about national redemption and revelation.
True, sometimes our Jewish families, friends and communities can be frustrating and disagreeable. Other Jews around the world can do things that hurt, embarrass, or offend us. Still, the communitarianism at the heart of our tradition is a gift. If we interacted in the way Judaism guides us, we would enter into significant relationships, take those relationships seriously, and nurture them.
2. Torah. Given the choice between a painful or pleasurable activity, most of us would choose the pleasurable. Yet, a life made up entirely of pleasant experiences, devoid of all pain, is actually not desirable. Studies, such as those described in Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Happier” (McGraw Hill, 2007), repeatedly show that happiness requires struggle and challenge.
In this sense, the challenge inherent in the study and practice of Torah is one of the great gifts Judaism can offer. To paraphrase Rabbi Neal Rose, if an action were something that came naturally, it wouldn’t need to be commanded. Living the discipline of the mitzvot is a difficult, yet meaningful and surmountable, challenge.
Likewise, pushing ourselves to encounter texts with which we may not agree in a language we may not yet fully understand is a challenge. Engaging the rich, complex, wise, and at times confounding canon of the Jewish tradition – Torah, Midrash, Talmud, Commentaries – is a trying and deeply gratifying endeavor that rewards the learner with momentary enjoyment and the opportunity to grow and improve, helping him or her advance toward his or her best self. Immersing in Jewish practice and study can greatly contribute to happiness.
3. God. To be happier, we must assert that nothing – no job, no boss, no financial obligation, no relationship – has the power to hold us back from living our best lives and becoming the person we most want to be, unless we allow it to. Yet, most of us enslave ourselves to masters that do not facilitate our happiness. For instance, we sacrifice happiness for the pursuit of wealth or prestige. What we oft forget is that this choice is ours alone.
Even those of us who are stuck in situations that are not inherently pleasurable or meaningful can control how we perceive and encounter those contexts. We have the power to reframe our situation so that we experience it as more meaningful and therefore more pleasurable. Ben Shahar reminds us that “Happiness is not merely contingent on what we do or where we are but on what we choose to perceive.”
The recognition that we are free to change our situation, or at least how we perceive it, to one that facilitates more happiness sounds easy, until we try it. This is why the Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of believing in, having a relationship with, and offering total loyalty to one God whose defining characteristic is liberating us from all other masters: “I am the Holy One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. You shall have no other god before Me.” Indeed, this liberating God commands us throughout the Bible to be happy.
Committing ourselves to serving God alone means freeing ourselves to pursue a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment, to become the best of who we might be. Living under God’s rule and serving no other master opens up the possibility of encountering life with fearlessness and the ability to follow our bliss.
Will living a Jewish life necessarily make you happier? No. Lord knows there are lots of miserable Jews out there. But it helps me, and I think it can help you, too.