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Oct 05 2016

Happiness = Goodness/How to Be Happy

HOW TO BE HAPPY

  1. Make the decision to be happy
  2. Make the best of whatever comes your way
  3. Understand that everything has a price
  4. Speak in positive ways
  5. Expect less and appreciate more
  6. Find ways to give back to the community
  7. Care for your body through food and exercise
  8. Make time to be with the people you love
  9. Pursue intellectual and spiritual growth

10.Spend time at Temple Chai with others who share your values

 

Shanah tovah- or- should I say- happy new year? What’s the difference anyway?  When we say “happy new year”, we evoke images of revelers drinking champagne, laughing and dancing- a party atmosphere.  What comes to mind when we wish them a “shanah tovah”, a good year?  Certainly, a more sober image. An image of those things that might make this a good year.  We think more deeply- health, family life, friends, community.  It turns out that a happy life is a good life, a life filled with meaning and purpose.  What can we do to be happy?  What can we do to be good?

Do you remember the Peanuts cartoon strip, the one where Charlie Brown woefully says, “Sometimes I wonder if I even know what it would take to make me happy.”  Snoopy responds by throwing a ball- “Here, get the ball.”  He seems mystified when Charlie Brown is still despondent in the final frame- “That usually works with dogs.”  That usually works with dogs.  What about us?  What does it take to make US happy?

Is happiness an end unto itself, or a by-product of a life well-lived? Do we wait for something that will make us happy, or can we cultivate a positive and happy outlook almost regardless of what is happening around us?  Eric Weiner wrote a fascinating book on happiness in various countries around the globe- The Geography of Bliss.  His conclusion is precisely that “happiness is a choice.  Not an easy choice, not always a desirable one, but a choice nonetheless.[1]”  The first, important way to be happy is to decide to be happy, to be happy unless there is some very dramatic reason not to be.

Making the best of what comes our way is a foundation of happiness.  Pirke Avot offers profound guidance, “Ayzehu asheer- sameakh b’khelko”- “Who is rich?  The person who is happy with their portion.”  There are many circumstances which are out of our control.  Many of us are unhappy because of things that are out of our control.  Our response to circumstances is the one thing that IS under our control.  Making the best of what comes our way is the second key to happiness.

It is human nature to be dissatisfied and to strive for more and better, and in many areas of our lives this serves us well.  If we are dissatisfied with our work, perhaps we can think about it differently.  If we are dissatisfied with disease, we will search for cures.  It is critical, however, that we learn to distinguish between what can and what cannot be changed.  We only create misery for ourselves when we allow dissatisfaction over what cannot be changed to become an obstacle to our happiness.

Thirdly, we recognize that everything has a price- even happiness! “The Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman was once asked if he could summarize the essence of economics in a sentence.  ‘There are no free lunches,’ he responded.  This is as good an understanding of life as it is of economics. Everything has a price.  With regard to happiness, there are three rules related to this law of life:

Make peace with the fact that everything in life has a price.

Determine what the price is for anything you desire.

Choose whether to pay that price or to forgo what you desire.”

There are obstacles on the road to happiness. The 10th commandment prohibits coveting that which belongs to our neighbor. Feeling dissatisfied with what we have and envying that which others enjoy is a sure path to unhappiness. In his study, Weiner concludes that, “. . . money does buy happiness. Up to a point.” In the country of Bhutan, which pioneered the idea of a Gross National Happiness index, one businessman defined happiness as, “knowing your limitations; knowing how much is enough.”[3] Consider that you may already have everything that you need?

The desire for financial success can impede our happiness. Here is Mouse addressing Goat in the Pearls Before Swine cartoon strip- “I don’t get it. I keep buying things to try to make myself happy.  But none of it makes me happy.”  Goat asks, “What does that tell you?” Mouse suggests, “I’m buying the wrong things.”  Goat says, “No.”  Mouse shouts, “I need better more expensive things!!”  Better, more expensive things, is not the key to happiness.

We need an expanded definition of happiness, one which embraces raising well-adjusted children, forming lasting friendships, establishing a harmonious household, being tolerant of others, lifelong learning, volunteering for the community- finding ways to bring blessing to others and to our community. Meaningful lives are happy lives.

Studies have also shown that what we talk about impacts our happiness. The 4th way to increase our happiness is to use positive language.  Studies show that “The happiest people had twice as many substantive conversations or discussions about meaningful information (such as philosophy and current affairs) and one-third as much small talk (discussions about trivial information, such as the weather) as the unhappiest people.”[1]  Deep listening and opening our hearts to others will certainly make them happy, and meaningful social connection is a critical aspect of happiness.

The most important key to happiness lies in transforming our expectations. If we can learn to be modest in our expectations, we will find many opportunities to rejoice.  As Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes in his landmark study, Gateway to Happiness, “Your expectations, though they are not explicitly formulated, are the root cause of much suffering. The more you expect, the greater chance you have of feeling upset and frustrated.  The person able to overcome expecting anything beyond his reach will live a calm and serene life.[1]”  We need to find that balance between wanting more and more and appreciating that our lives may be pretty great just as they are.

Expectations undermine our sense of gratitude, and gratitude is a fundamental aspect of happiness.  As we enter this new year, let’s take a moment to focus on all the blessings in our lives and resolve to complain less and give thanks more.  Rabbi Harold Kushner offers this perspective on the 23d Psalm- The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. One way to think of this is to be content with what you have.  Yet, in contemplating that verse, Rabbi Kushner suggests that, “My version of the psalm’s second line would read, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall often want.”  I shall yearn, I shall long, I shall aspire, I shall continue to miss the people and the abilities that are taken from my life as loved ones die and skills diminish.  I shall probe the empty spaces in my life like a tongue probing a missing tooth.  But I will never feel deprived or diminished if I don’t get what I yearn for, because I know how blessed I am by what I have.”[2]

Our tradition teaches us to say 100 brachot, 100 blessings, per day. Let’s appreciate every blessing. When we wake up in the morning we thank God that our souls have been restored to our bodies. When our bodies work sufficiently for us to eliminate our waste- another occasion for rejoicing! Aren’t you happy that you are here today? There are people who would love to be sitting together with the community tonight who, for a variety of reasons, are not able to join us. With each bracha we take a moment to focus on the blessings in our lives, thereby enhancing our happiness, reinforcing our sense of appreciation, and giving voice to our understanding that we can’t expect every aspect of our daily lives to go well.

What can we learn from supremely happy people? Kate Bratskeir answers that question in her article on “The Habits of Supremely Happy People.”[7] Among the strategies she mentions are: spending time with others who reinforce a positive attitude, cultivating resilience, being appreciative and noticing even the small triumphs in life, volunteering and giving back to the community, pursuing depth in conversation and growth in wisdom, deep listening to others, making time for in-person interactions, enjoying music and exercise and occasionally unplugging, and, apropos our presence in this sanctuary, searching for transcendence and spiritual connection.

In The Geography of Bliss, Weiner adds that, “. . .people who attend religious services are happier than those who do not,” and, “. . . busy people are happier than those with too little to do.”  I realize that is shameless self-promotion but it is also a well-documented fact!

Tonight we pray for a shanah tovah- a good year. What choices will you make that will maximize the goodness, and, ideally, the happiness in YOUR life? May our lives be filled with meaningful work, dedication to tikkun olam, repair of the world, devotion to family and spiritual growth. Living a life that matters turns out to be the foundation of happiness, and we are so blessed to have the wisdom of our Jewish tradition as a guide to creating meaning and purpose in our lives. Etz chayyim he l’machazikim ba, v’tomcheha m’ushar- It is a tree of life and those who hold onto it are happy. A happy life is the result of a good life. On this Rosh HaShanah as we enter into the Days of Awe, we renew our devotion to the deliberate study and practice of those character traits and attitudes that will make this not only a happy year but a good year as well. Shanah Tovah.

 

 

 

[1] Weiner, Eric, The Geography of Bliss, NY:  Hachette Book Group, 2008, p. 184

[2] Prager, Dennis, Happiness is a Serious Problem, NY:  Regan Books, 1998,  p. 5

[3] Weiner, op. cit., pp. 76, 77

[4] Mehl, Matthias R. and Vazire, Simine,  Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-being is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations, Psychological Science, Feb. 18, 2010

 

[5] Pliskin, Zelig, Gateway to Happiness, NY:  Aish HaTorah Publications, 1983, p. 238

[6] Kushner, Rabbi Harold, quoted in Mishkan Hanefesh, NY:  CCAR Press, 2015, p. 596

[7] The Huffington Post, Sept. 18, 2013

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