What Really Makes Us Happy?

3 Truths from 4000 Years of Judaism

This sermon was delivered the morning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

If we took a big white board and made a black dot, what would we focus on? The dot. That’s what we would notice. But the board would still be 99.99 percent white. But the dot would draw our attention.

happiness judaism

We often live our lives in a similar way. Things can be going well. We can have stable jobs, good food to eat, a nice house, yet something happens—maybe a stock goes down, or our child or grandchild does poorly on a test, and we get worked up. We focus on our energies on that.

It’s like when we get a report card from school, and it would have all A’s and then maybe a B, and your parents would focus on the B.

In fact, sometimes the better things are, the more we notice what may not be perfect. Have you ever stayed at a nice hotel, and then one little thing that you would normally tolerate somewhere else—say, the towels are not thick enough—and we get upset over that?

Okay, there are far worse problems in the world, but we have a tendency to focus on the negative in context. It seems sometimes we are wired for negativity. Or as Lily Tomlin once put it, “Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.” 

An Unhappy Jew is a Happy Jew

But we yearn for something else. If you ask parents what they want for their children, the most common answer you’ll get is “to be happy.” And we want to be happy as well. The Declaration of Independence promises us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Our Jewish tradition itself up promises light and happiness to those who are upright. The opening words of the Book of Psalms laud the person who is happy, planted in House of the Lord. Our Torah, our tradition, are not only guides for ethical and spiritual living. They are ancient instruction manuals for a happy life.

Now we are not used to thinking this way. Joseph Epstein, a Chicago writer, once wrote “An unhappy Jew is a happy Jew.” I suspect our founding Rabbi Arnold Wolf would agree. He was known to say the job of our faith is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. But these critiques misdefine happiness.

Happiness is not simply eat, drink and be merry. Happiness is not seeing the world through rose-colored lenses. Happiness is not always pleasure. Happiness is a feeling of a live-well lived. It is a lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole.

Perhaps a better word for happiness is flourishing or well-being. The idea, however, is the same. A sense of satisfaction with the choices we have made. How do we achieve that feeling? What guidance do we have for making choices that lead to a overall sense of satisfaction and well-being?

Limitations

For me the greatest lessons on happiness have come from conducting funerals. I know it sounds paradoxical, but death teaches us about life. In fact, before we get into what our tradition teaches about happiness, we need to understand the limitations we face.

Our first limitation is time. If we lived forever, happiness would not be an urgent issue. If we knew, say, that forgiveness helped make us happier, we could say—well, I could wait another 3000 years to forgive Henry. We’re going to live forever anyways.

Now this sacred day—Yom Kippur—is all about remembering our mortality. The custom of wearing a kittel—a shroud eventually used as a burial grown—reminds us that one day we will die. And fasting reminds us that there is more to life than physical nourishment. We need spiritual sustenance. Therefore, we need to embrace the time we have to live. Mortality make the pursuit of happiness timely.

The second limitation is genetics. Scientists estimate that about fifty percent of our sense of happiness comes from genes. We all know certain people tend to be grouchy and others to be filled with positivity. Even so, that leaves fifty percent within our control. And we are starting with huge advantages already. Simply living in the United States—where we are generally free to pursue our own destiny—gives us a leg up in the quest for happiness.

And so does being Jewish, or if we are not Jewish, having a connection with Jewish values and tradition. Because Judaism offers an extraordinary guide and path to a life of happiness, of flourishing, of enduring satisfaction. And this is a day to learn and imbue them.

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement. But it is described our sages as “Yom K-Purim, a day like Purim,” the happiest day of the year. We find happiness in our opportunity to change, to grow, to come together as a community. And we can find deeper happiness in our lives by embracing core Jewish practices.

Blessings

The first are blessings. We say blessings all the time. Before we read from the Torah this morning, we said a blessing. Before we eat, we are supposed to  say a blessing. Even before using the washroom in the morning, we are supposed to say a blessing. The Talmud urges us to say at least 100 blessings a day.

Why should we say so many blessings? Does God really need all the praise? No. We say blessings for the feeling they create us. Blessings help us see the world anew. They help us avoid taking things for granted.

Have you ever had a prolonged period—say, after surgery and recovery—where you couldn’t drive? Then what did it feel like to drive again? Pretty good, kind of surprising and wonderful. One of the enemies of happiness is familiarity. When we get used to things—when we get complacent—we lose the sense of wonder that surprises.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked in a famous interview what spiritual lessons adults can learn from children? “To always stay open to surprise,” he said. “To feel wonder. To have “radical amazement.” Blessings can help focus the mind on appreciating the wonder of the moment. Of course they do not always succeed. They can become rote and automatic. But they open up the possibility within ourselves.

Have you ever been at a special event—thanksgiving meal or a shabbat dinner—and you said the blessings and felt a sense of satisfaction? Maybe even the food tasted better? That’s the spice called blessing. Blessings help us stay present and mindful of what we are doing.

And we can do it anywhere, for whatever we wish. I try to say a blessing before writing. It reminds me to love and appreciate what I do, and to focus on capturing and filling the moment.

When I take students to a soup kitchen or we work together on mitzvah day on a project, we say a blessing for the pursuit of justice. When Cantor Glikin and I marched as part of the Journey for Justice in Raleigh, North Carolina, we prayed and said a blessing before beginning. Blessings mark time, and marking time helps us avoid taking the moments of life for granted. We can savor—or, in religious terms—sanctify them.

Learning

The second Jewish practice is study. Our education system sometimes makes us dread study. We associate learning and studying with school, with forced homework assignments, with standardized tests, with sitting down in a chair. Now some schools have started to change, and great teachers—like the ones I see in this room—know how to make study exciting and meaningful. They know what the Jewish sages knew, when they called study “the soul’s greatest delight.”

Our Jewish sages imagined heaven not as a place with winged angels and floating clouds with baroque music playing in the background. They imagined it as a great study hall with the rabbis assembled around the table and none other than God sitting and teaching them Torah! That was heaven.

Study as a path to happiness is not uniquely Jewish. Socrates said something similar. He suggested study helps us understand ourselves better. With greater self-knowledge, we have more control over our emotions and choices, and thereby can make wiser decisions.  Yet, in Judaism study is not always about understanding the self. Sometimes it pushes us outside of ourselves. It turns us outward rather than inward. And happiness, satisfaction comes from that shift in perspective.

The English writer Iris Murdoch called this “unselfing.” She offers an eloquent example. “…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel… I study its movements, its form. In a moment everything is altered.”

“The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may do deliberately to clear our minds of selfish care.” (I am grateful to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from whom I became aware of this text.)

Do you take time for study? I know some of our members do, taking classes here, at Northwestern, at Lake Forest College and elsewhere. Try it, even if you just come once a month to our Torah study class. Study brings outside of ourselves. And a person wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.

Repairing the World

The third practice is Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, community work and social action. Volunteering is the ultimate “unselfing.” It not only brings us outside of ourselves. It changes the world. It makes a dent in creation. But you probably already know that.

How many of us have felt incredibly good after volunteering? We may have resisted at first. We may have thought, “I’m too tired. I don’t want to drive all that way to volunteer.” But then we did it. We served a meal, we tutored a student, we visited a nursing home, and then felt uplifted, useful, important. Sometimes I think of volunteering like running.

As many of you know—judging by the number of waves I get and give—I love to run. The wonderful thing about running is that it generates more energy. I feel much better, focused and energized after a run than before. The same is true with volunteering. We may enter it tired. But we leave excited.

And the more we do it, the happier we become. I read this year the story of an extraordinary Jewish teen named Sam Berns. Sam suffered from progeria, a disease which causes rapid aging. It is the  extremely rare illness that also led to the death of the son of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Sam Berns died last year at age 17. About a year before he died, he delivered a public TED talk entitled  “my philosophy for a happy life.” Just the title alone inspires—on the brink of death, a seventeen year old teaches us how to live a happy life.

And when he was interviewed by NPR, he was asked “What is the most important thing people should know about you?” His answer? “I have a very happy life.” What was his secret? Three tenets: “First, be ok with what you ultimately can’t do because there is so much that you can do. Second, surround yourself with people you want to be around. Third, stay in a forward thinking state of mind.

I Will Be Happy

Sam succeeded in changing the world. His talk has been viewed over 10 million times and became the basis for a movie. I was most moved by what Sam said at the end: “No matter what happens, I believe that I can change the world. And as I’m striving to change the world, I will be happy.”

That last sentence sums up my vision of Judaism. We can change the world, and we can find happiness, satisfaction, meaning in doing so. God depends on us to sustain this creation, and when we answer God’s call, we find the greatest joy there is.

As the verses from Torah we read this morning say: “It is not in the high heavens so that you must say, who will go up to heaven and bring it down for us? It is not across the sea so that you must ask, who will venture across the sea and bring it back for us.”

No, Torah, learning, happiness, shalom—it is very near to us—in our mouths, in our hearts, in our hands. 

I show the way Jewish wisdom make our lives richer and happier. In particular, I help Jews appreciate their heritage and Christians uncover the Jewish roots of their faith. Get my FREE Jewish holidays cheat sheet by signing up here!

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