Scroll Top

Jewish Happiness as Authentic Happiness

 Jewish Happiness as Authentic Happiness

Kol Nidre/Yom Kippur 5773

This past August my family and I travelled to Mexico for some family time. As we wandered around our resort the first day, I kept seeing big signs everywhere touting the benefits and luxuries of the resort and others owned by the same company. It was annoying, to say the least! But eventually, like ads on the Internet, I didn’t even notice them—except for one. One of the signs refused to fade into subliminality. It irked me every time I walked by it for a week! The sign read: “Happiness is a beach massage and an over-water bungalow.” That’s right: “Happiness is a beach massage and an over-water bungalow.”

For many Americans, this is precisely the two-fold definition of happiness. American culture equates happiness with materialistic pleasure and escape. Let’s start with escape—most modern avenues for entertainment are deliberately designed to remove us from our normal lives to the greatest possible extent. From clubs to theme parks to video games to reality TV, our outlets for momentary happiness are whimsical flights of fancy removed from any semblance of reality despite the claim otherwise. Then there are our toys. Oh, our toys. From the newest tablet or computer or car to the newest iphone, the world has reached a point where mostly intelligent people wonder whether an emotive Siri might actually become their friend. Our ever-expanding pile of electronics, our consumerism, leads us to believe that things can bring us happiness. Most Americans consider this notion of happiness to be the inalienable human right guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. And we have exercised that assumed right with gusto, expending great resources to fill our lives with beach massages and over-water bungalows. But now, at the height of cultural materialism, it turns out we are collectively on the wrong path to finding happiness. According to a 2012 report published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, the United States ranks only 11th out of 156 countries in happiness even though we are the wealthiest. In most studies only about 50% of Americans report that they are happy.

So what are we to do?

In the last ten years, science has come to the rescue, thanks to a tectonic shift in the field of psychology. Instead of solely working towards making miserable people less miserable, psychologists started to focus on improving normal peoples’ lives. Scholars like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Czikszentmyhalyi began asking how extremely happy people differ from other people. What are their character traits and how do they behave? They performed randomly assigned efficacy and effectiveness studies on positive interventions that might help normal people become happier. We can now measure and evaluate different aspects of happiness. The results of all this research produced numerous studies, articles, and books and have I got news for you…they finally found the answer! Oh, you want to know what it is…

The answer is that we have been asking the wrong question. How’s that for a Jewish answer? Seligman writes that when presented with the word “happiness” the modern ear immediately hears buoyancy, good cheer, or indulgence. But historically this is not what happiness meant. If only Jefferson had used another word closer to the founding fathers’ true intent.[1] What they meant was happiness in the Aristotelian sense, Eudaimonia, “the highest of all goods achievable by action”. For Aristotle, happiness was not a temporary feeling of contentment or a psychological state of joy, but rather a stable pattern of living. In its truest sense, Jeffersonian happiness consists of flourishing, doing well over a long period of time. This is why, as a country, we have been unsuccessful in our national attempt to find happiness.    We forgot what we are searching for in the first place. As a society we have neglected the life components that can elevate us beyond the feeling of merriment. We have sacrificed the good life, the meaningful life for a beach massage and an over-water bungalow. And we are far poorer for it in every regard.

What we’re really looking for is not pleasure but authentic happiness.

This is the direction Judaism has sought to move us for millenia. Beginning with the Psalms, we find a path to authentic happiness similar to the one prescribed by Aristotle. For the psalmist, authentic happiness is a holistic measure of one’s quality of life rather than a momentary sensation of indulgence. Who attains authentic happiness, according to the psalmist? Those who are upright in action, who cultivate positive character traits, and who seek out meaning and wisdom.

A story: One day, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai sent his disciples out into the world to find the path to authentic happiness. Weeks later his disciples returned, each believing he had found the key. Rabbi Eliezer reported that the path to authentic happiness was having an “ayin tovah” a good eye for finding engaging work. Rabbi Yehoshua said that authentic happiness required being a “haver tov” a good friend, Rabbi Yosi said it was being a “shachen tov” a good neighbor…While Rabbi Elazar ben Arach said authentic happiness is the cultivation of a “lev tov” a good heart. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai listened to each of his disciples as they defended their response and after careful thought ruled in accordance with Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, for living with a good heart, searching for meaning and goodness in one’s life includes all of the other responses. According to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the path to authentic happiness requires each of the avenues presented by his students. He viewed authentic happiness as a matrix of behaviors and character traits whose essential purpose is to help us live joyful, fulfilling, meaningful lives. And science now agrees!

First, authentic happiness requires an “ayin tovah”, an eye for engaging work. This is what Czikszentmihalyi calls finding our flow, Aristotle’s eudaimonia—that state-of-being in which you lose all sense of time and space, where you are totally invested in what you are doing, where you are one with the music. Having an ayin tovah, a good eye, is about knowing yourself and how you optimally function in the world. What are your highest strengths and how can you re-craft your life and work to accentuate those strengths? Seligman tells the story of a bagger at a grocery store with whom he once worked. We’ll call her Sarah.  Sarah was putting herself through college by bagging groceries. It was a good job but she hated every minute of it. After working with Seligman, Sarah realized that her highest strength was social intelligence. So she re-crafted how she thought about bagging groceries. Sarah decided that she was going to make her encounter with her customers the singular social highlight of their day. Of course, there was no way to measure her success in this regard and Sarah likely failed in her attempt quite frequently. But by playing to her signature strengths, even in a job like bagging groceries, Sarah was able to enter into a state of flow. She became absorbed in her work and the three-minute conversations she had with her customers. It did not make her smiley or bubbly. She didn’t feel care-free or indulged, but it did elevate her level of authentic happiness. Said Rabbi Eliezer: have an “ayin tovah”, a good eye towards your signature strengths and re-shape your life to accentuate them just as Sarah did.

Along with an “ayin tovah,” authentic happiness requires us to live as a “haver tov” and a “shachen tov”, a good friend and neighbor. It’s difficult to overstate Judaism’s emphasis on community. We need friends and neighbors for prayer, study, and security. But we also need others in our lives to be truly happy.  Let’s do an exercise together. I want you to close your eyes. Yes, you in the back, as well! Now, allow yourself to visualize in detail one of the following: When was the last time you laughed uproariously? The last time you felt indescribable joy? The last time you sensed profound meaning and purpose? Visualize one of those scenes in as much detail as you can. Now, without opening your eyes, raise your hand if there are other people (friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, someone) in that image with you.[2] Ok, now leaving you hands up, you can open your eyes and look around. For most of us, the highlights in life are experienced in the context of relationships. Being a good friend and neighbor is not only for the communal good, but for our own good, as well. The book of Genesis (2:18) teaches “it is not good for humans to be alone”. We need to be invested in others in order to attain authentic happiness. Another story: When Stephen Post, a professor at SUNY Stony Brook, was a child he was prone to enter into a funk, like all kids do.  But unlike other kids, when Stephen was in a bad mood his mother would always say, Stephen, you are looking a little piqued. Why don’t you go out and help someone?” Seligman writes that empirically, doing kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in authentic. Being a “haver tov” and a “shachen tov” a good friend and neighbor isn’t just a plus for our friends and neighbors, it is the single best thing we can do to increase our own sense of well-being. You don’t believe me? Do one wholly unplanned act of chesed tomorrow, one kind act. Notice what happens to your mood!

One final note on relationships and authentic happiness. Above all our other relationships, there is one in particular that is capable of raising our sense of well-being. It comes from the original meaning baked into our verse from Genesis. Seligman writes, “Perhaps the single most robust fact across many surveys is that married people are happier than anyone else…Marriage is a more potent happiness factor than satisfaction with job, finances or community.”[3] In essence, what our Mishnah teaches and what Positive psychology asserts today is that relationships give our lives meaning. And a meaningful life contributes to our ability to flourish and live well. Said Rabbis Yehoshua and Yosi, be a “haver tov” a good friend and a “shachen tov” a good neighbor. Invest in your life by cultivating and improving relationships. Ultimately, it will lift your level of well-being and provide you with authentic happiness.

So, let’s return for a moment to the story of Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Yochanan asserts that being a good friend, living kindly in community, and leveraging our strengths in every aspect of our lives all work together to help us attain authentic happiness.  Note what is absent! There’s no mention of beach massages, over-water bungalows, or iphone 5s.  But Judaism does not ask us to live ascetic lives. We are meant to enjoy the blessings of creation and offer thanksgiving for them. In fact, one of the most striking teachings in Judaism states that we will have to give an account in the world t Come of every permitted pleasure we deprived ourselves of in this life. For God gave us this world to enjoy.

What Judaism does teach is that material pleasures and escape will not bring us authentic happiness, they will merely bring pleasure and escape. What our tradition asserts, psychology has now proven. According to Seligman and his fellow researchers, unless one already has an “ayin tovah” towards their strengths, seeks to live in a state of eudaimonia or flow, and fosters meaningful relationships seeking happiness through the pleasantries of life has little efficacy.  In other words, the things money can buy aren’t core components of authentic happiness. They are merely icing on the cake!

This Yom Kippur as we appraise our lives, we each have an opportunity to explore the ways in which we might find higher levels of well-being. What aspects of our Mishnah are missing from your daily experience? Do you have an “ayin tovah” towards your signature strengths and are you leveraging them in every facet of your life? Are you “all in” as a “haver tov” when it comes to your core relationships? Do acts of kindness permeate your week as a shachen tov, a good neighbor? As we move through this day of introspection, may we be granted insight into our own sense of well-being and may the coming year find each of us basking in the glow of authentic happiness. And if it happens to be in an over-water-bungalow, that won’t be so bad either.


[1] Seligman, Flourish, p. 10

[2] Seligman, Flourish, p. 20.

[3] Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness, p. 23