HAPPY New Year
HAPPY New Year
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Are you happy to be here this morning? I am! First of all, I’m happy that we can be together. Personally I am not yet so far past the trauma of the COVID-era as to take for granted what it means to have the option of being with each other in the same room. And hi to those of you who are joining us virtually as well. I don’t think that in my lifetime I will forget the surreal nature of walking into this sanctuary in September 2020 and seeing nothing but a big bank of computers and monitors and lights and broadcast equipment. It was surreal.
And then, when we had our very first in-person service after many long months, only 10 of us allowed, wearing masks, yet hearing our voices singing- wow! Tears filled my eyes – it was emotionally overwhelming.
I’ve always had a STRONG resistance to wishing people a happy new year on Rosh HaShanah. In fact, I will admit to a rather snobbish sense that the Jewish practice of saying Shanah Tovah, wishing people a GOOD year rather than a HAPPY year was infinitely preferable and so much more profound.
However, we’ve seen that one of the deeply unfortunate consequences of COVID has been a significant diminution in happiness and a spiraling sense of severe loneliness. So this year, Rosh HaShanah 5784, I want to wish each of you a happy new year, and I want to share with you a few ways to think about happiness. I occasionally listen to Dan Harris’ podcast, “Ten Percent Happier,” and that seems to me to be a reasonable goal for this High Holiday season. At the conclusion of these Days of Awe, my prayer for you is that you will at least have had a moment to reflect on how YOU could be 10% happier in 5784.
I’ll give away the ending right now. Here are 6 strategies that numerous studies have discovered are fundamental to our happiness:
Optimism vs. Pessimism
Being Part of a Happy Community
Time, Yes; Money, Not So Much
Kindness, Compassion, and Generosity
Knowing Your Strengths and Focusing on Core Virtues
And, 6th– Relationships- turns out Barbra was right- “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”
“Happiness,” Rabbi Naomi Levy said, “is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” How can we travel in a way that will help us be 10% happier?
Let’s look at these individually.
Optimism vs. Pessimism
Negative interpretation of events is a vital part of human evolution and key to our survival. It is important for us to be alert to danger and to respond quickly to crises. Pessimism has been fundamental to the endurance of humans. Yet, constant worry does not enhance the happiness in our lives.
Barbara Frederickson, who won The Templeton Positive Psychology Prize in its inaugural year, identified the evolutionary purpose of positive emotions. When we are happy, people like us better, and we are more likely to foster enduring friendships, love, and coalitions.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be sad when sadness is an appropriate emotion. The loss of a child, as an extreme example, has an impact that we never fully get over. Rather, optimism means, in the wise words of a Chinese proverb, that “While you cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, you can prevent them from forming a nest in your hair.”
When you sense a worry coming on, ask yourself what you would tell a friend who was experiencing that worry? Objectively review what is the evidence to support your negative perspective? Imagine that someone else is offering that negative thought and reflect on alternative ways to view the facts of the situation. Positive emotions about the past, the present, and the future are all parts of increasing happiness.
#2- Being Part of a Happy Community
What makes a happy community?
Our own happiness is affected by the happiness of others. So it’s a good habit to hang out with people who lift our spirits. Judaism emphasizes gratitude. And grateful people are happier people. The word for a Jew in Hebrew is “Yehudi,” which is etymologically connected to the root meaning thankful. Interesting to note that “survey data consistently show(s) religious people as being somewhat happier and more satisfied with life than nonreligious people.”
When we come to services, a major aspect of our prayer is prayers of gratitude. Thank you for our physical well-being, such as it is. Thank you for the order of the day and the night and the seasons. Thank you for the small miracles of everyday life.
Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, shares this wry quote:
“If you want to be happy. . .
. . . for an hour, take a nap.
. . . for a day, go fishing.
. . . for a month, get married.
. . . for a year, get an inheritance.
. . . for a lifetime, help someone.”
The Jewish goal is to say 100 blessings a day. That may seem unattainable, but it simply means taking a moment throughout our day to recognize a small positive moment of blessing. This practice increases our own personal happiness, and praying with each other lifts our focus from ourselves and builds bonds that sustain us as we leave the sanctuary.
Volunteering, offering each other loving acts of kindness, being of service to others, connecting with people and deepening our friendships, all of these are part of being a member of Temple Chai, and they all, coincidentally, make our congregation a happy community and a great place to be.
Third- Time, Yes; Money, Not So Much
Shockingly, social scientists time and time again discover that money does not buy happiness. I know it seems counter-intuitive. Once people achieve a reasonable level of financial stability, once we are assured that our basic needs can comfortably be met, there is no dramatic correlation between significantly more money and significantly more happiness.
For the last 6 years, Finland has been at the top of the list of happiest countries in the world. One of the key factors leading to this phenomenon is the social welfare system. When folks can be confident that they have enough, they are free to expand their own creative processes.
For us in the US, studies show, we can achieve greater happiness by using our money to buy more time. Tara Parker-Pope, writing in the NY Times on “How To Be Happy,” found that products that make our lives more convenient and using time-saving services, if you can afford them, are one way to a happier life.
Turns out that using our time to physically move increases our happiness. When your phone or your fitness app or even just your own body says that it’s time to move, pay attention!
4th– Kindness, Compassion, and Generosity
Giving money, giving time, volunteering, all of these have been found to increase happiness much more than selfishly focusing on our own desires. The prophet Micah taught as that among the top things that God wants of us is that we LOVE Chesed. Chesed- loving acts of kindness. (Micah 6:8) Not just that we should engage in lovingkindness, but that it lift us up when we experience it in our world. The World Happiness report found that “just thinking about being generous and kind triggers a happy reaction in our brain.” And, Dr. Seligman adds, “When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers.”
When we speak of kindness, we can’t forget to be kind to ourselves. Rabbi Israel Salanter taught that the person who is happy within themselves will radiate happiness to others.” This is the season of self-awareness and judgment. It’s good to look within and to adjust our course in the year ahead. I am reflecting on Hillel’s wise teaching two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Pirke Avot 1:14) A good question then and a good question now. So be kind to yourself.
And he follows it, immediately, with, “And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Which leads us to-
Volunteering. Volunteering is at the top of the list of actions we can perform that will have a strong, positive, physical response. You can line up to talk to our Board members after the service. Volunteers live longer- it’s a statistical fact.
Dr. Seligman describes an experiment in which students engaged in one so-called fun activity and one philanthropic activity. The results, he said, were “life-changing.” “The afterglow of the “pleasurable” activity (hanging out with friends, or watching a movie, or eating a hot fudge sundae) paled in comparison with the effects of the kind action.” I am so proud of Temple Chai’s many opportunities for us to increase our own happiness by helping others.
#5- Know Your Strengths and Focus on Core Virtues
Dr. Seligman has found that virtually every culture shares 6 core values- Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Love and Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Spirituality and Transcendence. Each of us is an individual, with our own strengths and our own affinity for certain of these values. Rather than spending our lives trying to overcome our weaknesses, he suggests that we find ways to enhance opportunities to use our particular strengths. This, he says, is a key element of happiness and a meaningful life. Want to develop your core values? The study of Mussar is for you!
How do you know when you are engaging one of your strengths? When you are totally absorbed in what you are doing and oblivious to the passage of time. We experience flow at work, we experience it at home. When we feel it we know it, and it is profoundly satisfying.
Finally, we come to relationships. A Yale study found that “Each additional happy friend increases your chance of happiness by about 9 percent.” Harvard did their own study. “Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been investigating what makes people flourish. . . Good relationships,” it found, “lead to health and happiness. The trick,” they remind us, “is that those relationships must be nurtured.”
Since the pandemic, loneliness in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. Loneliness itself, per the Surgeon General, “leads to higher instances of disease, dementia, stroke, depression and anxiety.” The culture of having all of our needs met with only one click has created toxic isolation.
This year, as the fundamental way of increasing our own happiness, may I humbly suggest a commitment to reach out to friends and prioritize making time to get together. A rich and fulfilling social life is the bottom line definition of a happy life- comfort, acceptance, support, confidence, advice- all of these are gifts our loved ones share with us.
So, to conclude, a happy life, or, at least, a happier life, or happy enough life, can be bolstered by:
Enhancing Our Optimism
Surrounding Ourselves with Happy People
Creating More Time Rather Than Pursuing More Money
Kindness, Compassion, and Generosity
Leaning on Our Strengths and Developing Our Virtues
Investing in Cultivating Friendships.
There is a story often attributed to John Lennon, which is a good way for us to close. “When I was 5 years old,” he is reported to have said, “my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
Enough said. Happy New Year!
 Seligman, Martin E. P., Authentic Happiness, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002, p. 35
 Ibid., p. 62
 Seligman, op. cit., p. 59
 Ibid., p. 80
 Tami Parker-Pope, op. cit. above
 Seligman, op. cit., p. 43
 Seligman, op. cit., p. 9
 Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, “What the Longest Study on Human Happiness Found is the Key for a Good Life”
 Jon Gabriel, “Nation’s ‘epidemic of loneliness’ is real. Here’s how to fight it,” AZ Republic, May 6, 2023, p. 11A