The Jewish secret to happiness

While happiness is a value in Judaism, it is joy, or simcha, that is truly worthy. We tend to pursue happiness by trying to be wealthier or materialistic; by contrast, joy is the ability to celebrate life with security, to enjoy the presence of others, and to care for and give joy to others. This is the concept of simcha in Judaism, and it is a central part of what it means to be a Jew. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l wrote, “Jews have known suffering, isolation, hardship and rejection, yet they never lacked the religious courage to rejoice. A people that can know insecurity and still feel joy is one that can never be defeated, for its spirit can never be broken nor its hope destroyed.”

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  1. The Torah stresses the importance of joy and happiness in connection with serving God and observing the commandments. For example, Devarim (Deuteronomy) 28 describes a series of calamities that will befall the Jewish people if they do not serve God besimcha (with joy): “Because you did not serve the LORD your God in joy (besimcha) and gladness of heart, even when everything was abundant (v. 47).” What do you think is behind the tradition in Judaism that we should serve God with joy?
  2. What is happiness? This is how Tehillim (Psalms) 1 describes it (v. 1-3): “Happy (ashrei) is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners or sat where scoffers sit. But his desire is in the Torah of the Lord; on his Torah he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in all that he does he prospers.” How does the description from Tehillim of happiness compare to how people tend to think of happiness today?
  3. Rabbi Sacks explored the difference between ashrei and simcha: “Happiness [ashrei] is the state of mind of an individual. Simcha in the Torah is never about individuals. It is always about something we share… The festivals as described in Deuteronomy are days of joy, precisely because they are occasions of collective celebration…Simcha is joy shared. It is not something we experience in solitude. According to Rabbi Sacks, what is the difference between ashrei and simcha?
  4. In the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot (Laws of Human Dispositions) 1:4, Rambam describes happiness as an ideal state in between two extremes: “One should not be overly elated and laugh, nor be sad and mournful, but rather one should be happy (sameach) at all times, with a friendly countenance.” How does Rambam describe happiness? How does it compare to the way we tend to think about happiness today?
  1. Pirkei Avot 4:1 states, “Who is rich? One who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: ‘You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper’ (Tehillim 128:2).” Spend 30 – 45 minutes “rejoicing” about everything you are grateful for. Create a gratitude collage that includes people, places and things you appreciate. You can collect photos and images and create a physical collage, or create an online collage using Canva or Padlet. Be creative and have fun!
  2. Read this article by Dr. Noam Weissman on happiness and Sukkot and focus on the section about “PERMA.” Martin Seligman, a founding leader of positive psychology, provides a very simple formula for joy. Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to represent what he sees as the five key elements to happiness: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. Which element(s) of PERMA are already a big part of your life? Which element(s) do you want to increase in your life? How can you do that?
  3. What brings someone joy varies from one person to the next. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper. One one side, make a list of the people, places and things that bring you joy. On the other side, list things that are a part of your life that do not bring you joy. Then identify one thing from each side of your list that you can do more often / less often.
  1. Watch the video in which four people reflect on what brings them happiness. Then answer the following questions:
    • What did you do last week that was important for cultivating your personal happiness?
    • What did you do that was harmful to your cultivation of personal happiness?
    • How do you think your life would be different if you more frequently did things that cultivated your happiness?
    • What held you back from cultivating happiness?
    • What’s one piece of practical advice you would give yourself?
  2. Read this article by Dr. Noam Weissman on happiness and Sukkot and focus on the paragraph about “hygge.” You can learn more about hygge from Hygge House as well as this article. What does this word mean? How could you incorporate hygge into your life more?
  3. Read this article by the psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, “How to Keep Happiness from Fading.” Halvorson writes about the phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation,” the tendency to return to a “baseline” level of happiness after experiencing a positive or negative event. Halvorson cited a famous study that showed that “despite their initial euphoria, lottery winners were no happier than non-winners 18 months later.” What two strategies does Dr. Halvorson offer for how to keep happiness from fading? How could you use these strategies in your own life?

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