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Happiness Is An Attitude

Sukkot (Leviticus 22:26-23:44 )

by Nesanel Yoel Safran


Holidays are happy times. But there is one Jewish holiday, Succot, the Festival of Booths, when joy literally breaks through the roof. Our sages refer to it as "Zman Simchateinu" - the time of our happiness. Jews traditionally build and decorate beautiful succahs, outdoor huts made from natural materials that become a "home away from home" during the seven-day festival. There we eat, drink, get together with family and friends, sing and dance with joy. The sages teach that that the happier we make ourselves on Succot, the more joy we will be able to feel the whole year.

But what if we just don't feel happy, or things aren't going our way? The Torah view is that happiness is an attitude that doesn't depend on any outside circumstances. We can actually teach ourselves to be happy. And it's worth it, for joy is a valuable tool for living that can energize us, help us get along better with others, and bring us closer to our goals. Succot is the time to develop joy!

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In our story a boy develops the happiness attitude.


      "What are you so happy about?" Ritchie asked Steve with a touch of annoyance. The two boys were sitting in the back of their carpool van in the middle of a huge traffic jam and the air conditioner wasn't even working. The traffic jam was taking so long that some people were getting out of their cars to stretch out on their roofs to catch some sun.

      When Ritchie initially asked Steve for his opinion on the traffic situation, he expected grumbles, sarcasm - anything but the bright smile and cheerful thumbs-up that his friend Steve sent back his way.

      Ritchie went on, "It's not like we're sipping Cokes by the swimming pool, you know. Aren't you teed off by this traffic jam?" Ritchie asked, getting more annoyed by the minute.

      But Steve only gave him the same happy smile. "What's the use of getting down about it? It's not going to change anything, is it? At least we're not walking."

      Ritchie had to admit that the guy had a point. But still, this trip was a definite drag, and he felt like he had every right to be mad. By now a guy was walking up and down between the rows of sitting cars selling soft drinks.

      "Hey, there's your Coke!" quipped Steve, with a chuckle. "We still have to work on the swimming pool ... unless a car-pool's good enough?!"

      Ritchie couldn't believe it. His friend was cracking jokes at a time like this and really having a good time! He took a quick glance at the other kids in the car and sure enough they all looked appropriately miserable, especially little Hal, who was sitting strapped into a car seat.

      The car horns were blasting non-stop, creating a strange symphony. Ritchie turned to Steve, his calm, cheerful friend and asked, "What's your secret, and where can I get some of it?"

      Steve laughed. "It's no big secret, and you already have it! People are as happy as they decide to be. In almost any situation you'll find that some people are happy and others aren't. I just decided I'm going to be one of the happy ones. And you can too."

      The kids in the van started to cheer as the cars in front of them started to move, but cheers turned into groans when the line of traffic pulled to an abrupt stop only a few yards later... "How can I just decide to be happy, if I'm not?" Ritchie asked.

      Steve nodded, "Well one good way at first, is to act as if you're happy. You'll be amazed to see that more often than not you'll actually start feeling happier. Go ahead, give it a try."

      It sounded pretty far-fetched, but Ritchie decided there was nothing to lose - they certainly weren't in a rush. Ignoring the heat, Ritchie pasted on his best attempt at a smile. He was surprised to notice that he felt a bit less tense.

      "Good start," encouraged Steve. "Next, start to think about everything that's going right in your life, instead of what's going wrong, and soon you won't have to pretend to be happy, because you will be happy! After all, you're alive, healthy, you've got friends with you in the van - and that's just a start."

      Ritchie had to admit that he had a lot to be grateful for. He was really starting to feel better, even almost happy.

      "C'mon, let's start a song!" Steve called out. As the two boys started to sing, the other kids in the van turned around. At first they looked annoyed, but were soon disarmed by the genuinely cheerful faces smiling back at them. One by one they started to join in. After a little while, the whole van was singing in some sort of harmony. Even the driver and Hal joined in! When the traffic finally started to get moving, no one even really noticed. As far as they were concerned, they had already come un-jammed a while ago.

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Ages 3-5

Q. How did Ritchie feel at first when he was stuck in a traffic jam?

A. It bothered him. He was grumpy and sad.

Q. How did he feel after he had a talk with his friend, Steve?

A. He felt much better. He realized there were ways he could make himself happy even in a traffic jam.

Ages 6-9

Q. What is the formula of happiness?

A. There are a lot of things we can do to make ourselves feel happy. The first step is to realize that happiness is a choice we can make. It is very helpful to look for the good in any situation, and realize how it could have always been worse, and to appreciate the good in the situation. Sometimes even just acting as if you're happy can jump-start a person to really feel better.

Q. What does a person gain by being happy?

A. Besides just feeling a lot better than being down, there are many other benefits. When we feel happy we have much more energy and can accomplish things we never could otherwise. It can actually make us healthier and stronger. Also, happiness is contagious. When we're happy, the people around us are too. And who wouldn't rather be surrounded by happy, friendly people? It's no wonder being happy is a Mitzvah!

Ages 10 and Up

Q. It's fine to be happy, but aren't there situations where its really not appropriate to be happy?

A. Certainly in extremely difficult or tragic situations, no normal person is going to be bursting with joy. Nevertheless there is a basic level of existential happiness that can accompany a person through anything. This consists of a joy to simply be alive. Life, our sages and mystics teach, is an invaluably precious spiritual gift in any form. Besides this, a person can derive happiness from his connection to, and awareness of God's guiding presence in his life. He may draw comfort in trusting that ultimately everything that happens is for the best, even when its not immediately apparent.

Q. Our sages define wealth as a feeling of being "happy with one's lot." What does this statement mean to you?

A. The point here is that external circumstances are more or less irrelevant when it comes to happiness. Unfortunately, there are too many stories of people who had it all - health, wealth, fame and beauty, who felt so miserable inside that they ruined or even ended their own lives. On the other hand there are other people who have seemingly much less, but are happy. Happiness is achieved by adjusting our needs and expectations to be at a level where we can appreciate and feel content with whatever circumstances arise in our lives. There is no greater sense of genuine spiritual wealth than this.

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