How to Live Happier

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If you happened to find yourself on Jeopardy, with control of that great blue board of squares and were to ask for, “Jewish Holidays for $1000, Alex.”,

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And I were to give you - “Answer: The Talmud teaches that "The happiest days for the Jews are the fifteenth of Av and this holiday.” (Taanit 26b).

Making sure you answered in the form of a question - what would you say?

*Doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo DO, dododododo…

What is Simchat Torah? What is Chanukah? What is Purim? *Buzzer Sound*

The correct answer: What is Yom Kippur?

Now I know what you’re thinking - we Jews are not a happy people without food.

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat! How could a fast day, a day of wrestling with mortality and repenting for our sins, be our happiest day of the year? But that is, in fact, precisely the point.

We often associate happiness with fleeting moments of pleasure. And when we focus so much on those temporary highs, we lose sight of what happiness truly is.  We start to think that lasting happiness isn’t of our own making and we only have control of those brief moments of bliss. The root of the English word for happiness is hap - which means luck or chance. In German, the word gluck means both happiness and chance. And despite that German root making its way into Yiddish, in the word gleek-lech, that’s not how Judaism understands happiness.

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of Jewish studies, explains that “In the ancient and medieval periods, ‘happiness’ was understood as ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing,’ and it had to do with the quality of one’s soul…The Judaic approach to happiness has to do with the kind of life one leads, rather than how one feels at a given moment.”

Which leads us back to Yom Kippur. Because today is the culmination of a week in which we evaluate the kind of life we lead. When we do Cheshbon HaNefesh-the accounting of our souls– we examine our spiritual well-being. Today–Yom Kippur–is about happiness in the Jewish sense of the word.

Tal Ben Shahar, an Israeli expert in positive psychology, notes that “one Hebrew word [for happiness] osher, comes from the root of approval, of authenticity. If I live a life I approve of, an authentic version of myself, he teaches, I will be happy.” That’s what we are attempting to do at this time of year - to align our external actions with our internal self, to calibrate our behavior to match our souls, using Jewish values as our guideposts.

But how do we do that? How do we live honest, authentic lives that create lasting happiness? In today’s world, we are constantly tempted with passing pleasures: checking likes on Facebook and Instagram 800 times a day, bingeing TV shows, focusing on food at a fancy restaurant instead of whomever we’re eating with. It’s not easy to reprogram ourselves away from thinking these temporary pleasures bring us true happiness- but Ben Shahar has a few ideas for how we can do it, and how we can achieve lasting happiness.

First, accept that we are human. It’s okay to struggle with our emotions, to fail, to not always put our best foot forward. Our entire tradition is built on this fact. We tell stories in which our patriarchs and matriarchs, and even God, are all imperfect. Moses, our greatest leader, teaches us to accept our human nature. Moses’ story is a story of falling down and getting up, time and again. Moses teaches us to accept our human fallibility and to face those challenges with chazak v’ematz, with strength & courage.

The Second thing he teaches us is to: Simplify our lives.

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Henry David Thoreau famously writes in Walden (1840): “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! …let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

Part of our human fallibility is thinking we can do everything. We can’t. And even if we are able to check every box off of our to-do list, that doesn’t mean we do them well.

Study after study shows that human beings achieve far higher rates of success when focussing on fewer tasks. This applies at work. It especially applies to our children in school. It even applies to our social life. When we spread our attention too thin and overschedule ourselves, we can’t possibly give the needed care to our work or our relationships. This balance is a central tenet of the Jewish calendar. As Rabbi Heschel teaches, “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.” We invented the weekend.  Our calendar understands how important it is for us achieve this balance–through Shabbat, through our holidays, through the many simchas that fill our lives. But we take advantage of it to receive its benefits.

Third: We can only achieve lasting happiness if our lives exist at the intersection of meaning and pleasure.

Happiness is unsustainable if we only focus on the pleasurable or the meaningful, at the exclusion of the other. Our happiness depends on both a pursuit of purpose and an emphasis on what we enjoy. Spending time with friends makes you more resilient in the face of a challenge. Spending a few hours with your kids affects your mood at the office. Volunteering for a non-profit makes you happier around the house. When we fill our schedules with a mix of these activities, there is a ripple effect on everything we do.

I believe synagogues exist at this intersection. The mix of meaning and purpose, with pleasure and celebration. Which brings us to our final path to happiness: focusing on our relationships that matter most to us. Relationships are the #1 generator of happiness and the #1 predictor of well-being. That’s where this community comes in.

All of us need nurturing, day-in, day-out. When we neglect this need, we inadvertently neglect our happiness. Happiness depends on each and every one of us being known and seen within our community, within our circles, rather than merely being validated. Validation is a passing pleasure. Letting others authentically know us, and learning eagerly about others, is how we achieve lasting happiness.

These four paths to happiness – accepting our human nature, simplifying our lives, living at the intersection of meaning and pleasure, and making relationships a priority–are all paths that Judaism helps us pursue.

In fact, Martin Seligman, an innovator of Positive Psychology, writes that, “Survey data consistently show religious people as being somewhat happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious people…Religions instill hope for the future and create meaning in life.”

That makes sense because our community is an intersection of all four paths to happiness. Synagogues provide a place to be human and find support in whatever you're going through; a spiritual home to find balance; a place to build relationships from nursery school through adulthood; a place to celebrate holidays and simchas as a community. In so many ways, Jewish community provides the foundation for a lasting happiness.

Next week, when we welcome the festival of Sukkot as a community, we welcome the only period in our calendar in which we are commanded to be happy. Sukkot is z’man simchateinu - a time for our happiness, for our rejoicing. And in microcosm, Sukkot represents all four paths to happiness.

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As we dwell in our makeshift structures, exposed to the elements, we are forced to confront our human nature, our human vulnerability, our inability to control the world. We sit in the most simplified form of shelter, focused on sanctifying time with our loved ones. As we enjoy the pleasures of sukkot by celebrating and eating and singing, we also find meaning by welcoming imaginary Ushpizin-guests from our story–our patriarchs and matriarchs, and prophets–that all teach of the transient nature of life, the value of hachnasat orchim-welcoming guests, and caring for the poor. Finally, Sukkot is a festival of community and relationships. We invite our friends and family to our sukkot and bring our families to theirs. Sukkot is a time when we focus on our community, new friends and old, and welcome them to our homes.

The commandment to be happy, to rejoice, to make Sukkot z’man simchateinu, again demonstrates the Jewish understanding of happiness. As we face our own fragility and vulnerability, as we gather in huts and focus on the simple joys, as we rejoice but also find meaning in Jewish values, as we spend time cultivating and sustaining relationships, we are pursuing a path to lasting happiness.

So this Yom Kippur, this culmination of ten days of teshuva, may we all return again to our simplest needs as human beings. May we focus our energies and our time on the most important things in our lives: our loved ones, our purpose, our community. And may this year be our happiest yet.

Shana tova tikateivu.

Alex KressComment