On Happiness

There once was a poor, unhappy man named Yankel. Yankel was a dreamer. Each night he would sit in his tiny hovel on a broken wooden chair at a battered wooden table over a glass of weak tea and imagine the treasures he knew were waiting for him somewhere. When he found his treasure, how his life would change! Yankel’s days and nights were filled with dreams of all that his treasure would bring. No longer would he live in the tiny broken down hut, exposed to the cold wind and the rain. In his dreams he walked the halls of the fine home that would be his, a home with a roof that actually served a purpose. He wandered through the broad rooms and up the fine staircases - every floor covered with plush rugs, every window hung with lavish curtains. No longer would he wear the rags of a poor man. In his dreams he strolled the streets of the town in a proper suit, tapping the sidewalk with a proper cane as he wished all fellow proper people a good morning. In the sweetest of all his dreams, no longer would Yankel see himself as a poor, unaccomplished, foolish dreamer. When the treasure was his, he would finally know fulfillment. He would see himself as a man of importance and honor, and others would rejoice in being in his presence. But the years passed. And each night, Yankel would go to sleep, and each morning he’d awaken just as poor and unhappy as he’d been the day before. 

One night Yankel had a dream. It was the most vivid, most powerful dream he’d ever had. In his dream he saw a bridge in the great city. Under the bridge, on the banks of the river, was the treasure he’d waited his whole life to find. The dream was so real and the treasure so close that Yankel woke up in the middle of the night, jumped from his bed, dressed himself quickly, grabbed his tools and hurried to the great city. As dawn broke, he found the river, and the bridge, and the spot where the treasure was buried, just as the dream had shown him. He began to dig furiously. After some time a policeman came by. The policeman peered down into the pit and, with a combination of curiosity and annoyance, asked the strange little man what he was doing. Why was he digging a pit beneath the bridge, beside the river, in the middle of the great city? Yankel realized there was no sense in lying about his intentions, so he pulled himself up from the pit, brushed himself off, faced the officer and answered him directly. “I had a dream last night,” he responded.“In the dream at this spot, beneath this bridge, beside this river, there was a treasure meant just for me!” “You saw a treasure in your dreams? And so you came here to find it? You’re a fool!” laughed the policeman. “If I believed every dream I had, I’d be a fool too! Just last night I dreamed of a little Jew named Yankel who lives in a village not far from here and has no clue that a great treasure lies buried beneath the floor of his own kitchen! But you don’t see me with a shovel in some stranger’s kitchen! Dreams are for fools!” Hearing his name and the mention of his treasure, Yankel quickly gathered his tools and ran home. Sure enough, when he dug up the floorboards of the very same kitchen he’d sat dreaming in night after night, Yankel indeed found treasure. And all that Yankel imagined would come with it was soon his.i 

The pursuit of happiness has been our particular heritage as Americans, and we have gone through a variety of cycles of explorations into the subject. According to research from the National Science Foundation, since 1972 only 1/3 of Americans have described themselves as ‘very happy’ii. Perhaps this accounts for the proliferation of how-to books in the “Self Help” era of the 80s and 90s whose content promised us the ability to achieve our own bliss. We have tried to tackle happiness through the development of careers and of personal lives, pushing ourselves to our outermost limits in the pursuit of this often fleeting emotion. We have bought into the system of commercialized happiness that promises us days of never ending smiles if only we drive a certain car, wear certain clothes and push ourselves to ever greater heights of personal attainment. Psychologists call this never-ending quest of consumption “the hedonic treadmill.”iii The happiness we feel after we acquire each new item eventually wears off, leaving us right back where we started, which pushes us onward to our next acquisition, whose allure will also fade. We are procurement junkies, and we spin our wheels on this treadmill of hedonism, looking for the next thing to make us happy.

But falling prey to this endless cycle is not exactly our fault. We have inherited an American birthright, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, of the inalienable right to pursue happiness. This understanding of happiness was born of a presumption of abundance paired with a work ethic that would shape a young nation. In a recent Time Magazine article on the Pursuit of Happiness, the author writes, “American happiness would never be about savor-the-moment contentment . . .Our happiness would be bred, instead, of an almost adolescent restlessness, an itch to do the Next Big Thing.”iv This is our idea of ourselves as a nation, we build up and out, bigger and better, always on the move. But was this really the intention of our founders when they included the pursuit of happiness alongside the rights to life and liberty?

Our founders’ understanding of happiness was born of Aristotle’s ancient definition that happiness is an ultimate good worth seeking for its own sake, the pursuit of which is beneficial not only to the individual, but to society as a whole.v The pursuit of happiness, then in its original understanding is neither an insular nor selfish one. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was influenced by Aristotle’s understanding of happiness that leads to the greater good of humanity. That our country’s founders emphasized happiness in the same breath as basic human rights has set us, the inheritors of this Declaration of Independence, up for an uphill battle as the subjective nature of the word hovers over our heads. We ask ourselves if we are happy, but happiness is marketed to us in such a broad variety of ways that we must first ask: what is happiness, to me?

In April of last year my husband and I were engaged to be married. We set the date for the following year, to ensure ample time for planning this moment that I, as a young girl, had so often dreamt of. The news of our engagement brought a rush of celebrations with family and friends; our happiness was palpable. The year that followed was busier than I could have imagined, as ideas coalesced into plans, plans into preparations, preparations into actions. As the day drew ever-nearer, wedding-talk consumed our lives. The big day finally arrived, and everything was just as we had planned it – perfect to the last detail. We were caught up in a tidal wave of love and joy to be celebrating this day with our friends and family, all in one place at one time. The fevered pitch of celebration finally came to an end at midnight, with weary revelers making their way into the balmy night. And then - that was it. We were married! The year of meticulous planning and preparations was over in an instant. I was beyond excited to embark upon our new life together, but there was a wedding-shaped-hole in my life where all of the dreaming, excitement and planning had once been.

It is safe to say that our wedding day was one of the happiest of my life, but there was a strange feeling of emptiness once it was over. The happy moments of that night were powerful, but all of the work that went into planning them did not sustain a new era of unbridled happiness. We got back into the rhythms of life, the euphoria settled, and ultimately there was laundry to be done and bills to be paid. How much did I miss during that year of planning, of looking ahead, instead of looking around me? Certain precious relationships suffered due to lack of attention, and celebratory moments were missed, as I became utterly wrapped up in the events of my own life. Now, after the dust of the celebration has settled, it has become apparent just how delinquent I was in the upkeep of many other rewarding areas of my life. In a multi-tasking world where we are asked to constantly juggle multiple precious objects, how many of them fall through the cracks? And when they do, which ones are resilient enough to bounce back up, and which ones are delicate crystal, shattering upon first impact?vi

In her book, The Happiness Project, writer and mother Gretchen Rubin dedicates a year to increasing the happiness in her own life. In her introduction she writes, “I had everything I could possibly want – yet I was failing to appreciate it. Bogged down by petty complaints and passing crises, weary of struggling with my own nature, I too often failed to comprehend the splendor of what I had.”vii For Rubin, her Happiness Project was not about increasing the number of happy moments she experienced, but rather about finding happiness amidst the messiness of her everyday life. Her project was motivated both by a desire to more clearly see the good that was already abundant in her life, but also to prepare herself for any challenging times ahead. She noticed that when she was actively focused on being happy and bringing out the good in her world that life was easier for her and those around her. “ [She] was more patient, more forgiving, more energetic, more lighthearted and more generous. Working on [her] happiness wouldn’t just make [her] happier, it would boost the happiness of the people around [her].”viii Rubin identified 12 areas of her own life that she wanted to improve, and focused on one in depth each month. She began by delving into the world of happiness research and found that the four most important elements to happiness are social bonds, one’s individual perspective on life, a fulfilling work life, and fulfilling leisure time. And so she began her journey toward unearthing her own happiness by focusing on the things she already did, but taking the time and to do them with intention.

In a 2011 documentary on the subject, aptly titled Happy, filmmaker Roko Belic travels the world to find out what exactly it is that makes us happy. He follows a rickshaw driver in Calcutta, and an elderly bayou fisherman in Louisiana. The rickshaw driver lives with his growing family in a ramshackle hut in the infamously destitute slums of Calcutta. He smiles as he explains that, despite rain coming into their home during the monsoon season, he and his family consider themselves to be quite happy. In the background we see other families, mothers with babies on their backs, smiling and laughing together in conversation. The rickshaw driver says, “we stay together and that makes us happy.” The elderly Bayou fisherman and his family sit around a picnic table in the backyard of a humble house near the swamp. The family has very little material wealth, but they consider themselves to be exceedingly happy. “We get together once a week, we were each other’s playmates growing up.” says a female relative, smiling as she cracks into another bright red crawfish.ix 

The film goes on to propose that it is our values that determine whether we are happy or unhappy in our lives. Both the fisherman and the rickshaw driver share a strong set of intrinsic values. Intrinsic goals and values are those that are inherently satisfying, that foster personal growth, close relationships and a strong feeling of community. Extrinsic goals, such as success, money and image are not inherently satisfying – their value being relative to the society in which the individual lives. Frequently, these intrinsic and extrinsic values are in opposition with each other, and the pursuit of the extrinsic can leave us less happy and more anxious, with decreased vitality.x An accounting of our values can help us understand and achieve greater personal happiness as we shift our attention toward the intrinsic, inherently rewarding values that guide our lives.

Ultimately it is up to us to decide what makes us happy, and our tradition acknowledges the fact that happiness is both highly personal and highly subjective. Instead of wishing each other a Happy New Year on this High Holy Day, we say “Shana Tova U’Metukah” – May you have a good and sweet year, or “Gut Yontiff” – May you have a good Holy Day. We wish each other goodness as we pray that we each be inscribed in the Book of Chayim Tovim – The Book of the Good Life. Our liturgy speaks of the importance of our actions in these ten days and the effect that they can have on our inscription for the year to come.

Our yearning to be inscribed in the Book of Life and Blessing, coupled with our Unetaneh Tokef prayer that lists the “who by fire and who by water” of our fates, can be too alienating and fatalistic for some of us. What if the Book of Life, Chayim Tovim, is not a roll-call of who has been good in the past year, but a book that is ever-evolving, ever unfolding in telling the tale of our individual lives – highlighting the goodness therein? What if the Book of Life contains a retelling of all the potential fulfillment, joy and contentment that awaits us in the year ahead? Our attitudes, our values, our actions are what earn us a place in the Book of Life. God urges us in Deuteronomy to choose life so that we and our children may live. Choose the good, focus on that which brings you fulfillment, and participate in the world in a way that increases joy and yes, happiness.

In Mishnah Pirke Avot – the Ethics of our Fathers – the rabbis expound upon this question of contentment and happiness. The text teaches, “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with what he has.” As Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project urges, seeking happiness has less to do with searching for new things that make us happy and more to do with finding fulfillment in that which we already have. Belic’s documentary suggests that we focus on the relationships and values that bring us immediate and lasting joy, rather than our personal wealth or position. Both of these explorations into the subject of happiness find that true happiness comes with personal fulfillment – when one feels a sense of completeness, happiness soon follows. Our tradition has a word for such fulfillment, shleimut. Sharing the same roots as the word for peace, shalom. That these two words for peace and wholeness are so similar offers us deeper insight into our understanding of both: peace requires an element of wholeness, and personal fulfillment requires that we have a modicum of peace with ourselves.

Pay attention to your heart – notice the moments of true joy in your life and name them. Three months after our wedding, on an ordinary weeknight, I found myself curled up on the couch watching a movie with my husband, our two sleeping dogs in between. In that moment I felt whole and content. In that moment I was happy.

These ten days between now and Yom Kippur afford us the opportunity to do the work that will lead us to our own shleimut, our own wholeness. Unlike poor Yankel, we needn’t travel far and wide in order to unearth our happiness, but dig we must. This is our work on these High Holy Days – to search within ourselves for our unique sources of fulfillment. To acknowledge the ways that we have chosen to be inscribed in the Book of Life, and to dig up the very floorboards that may hide our own happiness. In the year ahead I urge each of you to take on your own happiness project. Notice the in-between moments of fulfillment and contentment, though they may not be euphoric. Circle, underline and highlight the happy ones, the ones where contentment outweighs need, where fulfillment and shleimut reside. Then, perhaps just by naming the moments for what they are, we can begin to notice and appreciate their abundance in our lives.

Shana Tova.

i“The Treasure” – Retold by Rabbi Edward Feinstein in Capturing the Moon.
iiKluger, Jeffrey “The Pursuit of Happiness” in Time, July 8/July 15 2013
iiiHappy, Dir. Roko Belic. 2011. Film.
viMetaphor courtesy of my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Tali Zelkowicz, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Rhea Hirsch School of Education.
viiRubin, Gretchen, The Happiness Project, p.2
viiiIbid, p.14
ixHappy, Dir. Roko Belic