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The Secret of Happiness

January 29, 2015 | by Rabbi Noah Weinberg

The key to happiness is to appreciate what you have. If it's so simple, why are so many people unhappy?

A young man with an unusually happy disposition once came to meet me in Jerusalem. I asked him, "What's your secret?"

He told me, "When I was 11 years old, God gave me a gift of happiness. I was riding my bicycle when a strong gust of wind blew me onto the ground into the path of an oncoming truck. The truck ran over me and cut off my leg.

"As I lay there bleeding, I realized that I might have to live the rest of my life without a leg. How depressing! But then I realized that being depressed won't get my leg back. So I decided right then and there not to waste my life despairing.

"When my parents arrived at the hospital they were shocked and grieving. I told them, 'I've already adapted. Now you also have to get used to this.'

"Ever since then, I see my friends getting upset over little things: their bus came late, they got a bad grade on a test, somebody insulted them. But I just enjoy life."

At age 11, this young man attained the clarity that it is a waste of energy to focus on what you are missing, and that the key to happiness is to take pleasure in what you have. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So why are so many people unhappy?

Happiness Is a State of Mind

People often think happiness is based on what you achieve and acquire. My whole life would improve if I had a new car...
I just need a better job and then I can relax and be happy...
If only I met the right girl...

You get the car and what happens? For a whole week you're walking on air. Then you go right back to being unhappy.

Happiness comes from mastering the art of appreciating.

Happiness is not a happening; it's a state of mind. You can have everything in the world and still be miserable. Or you can have relatively little and feel unbounded joy.

As the Talmud says, "Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has" (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1).

That's why the morning prayers begin with a series of blessings thanking God for the simple and obvious:

Thank you, God, for giving me life Thank God I can see, that I can use my hands and feet, that I can think.

Happiness comes from mastering the art of appreciating and consciously enjoying what you already have.

On the Ledge

Imagine you are standing on the 70th floor of the Empire State Building, gazing at the cityscape. Suddenly a rather large man brusquely pushes past you, wrenches the window open and announces his intention to jump.

You yell out, "Stop! Don't do it!"

The six-foot-five figure turns to you and menacingly says, "Try to stop me and I'll take you with me!"

"Umm... No problem, sir. Have a safe trip. Any last words?"

"Let me tell you my troubles," he says. "My wife left me, my kids won't talk to me, I lost my job and my pet turtle died. So why should I go on living?"

Suddenly you have a flash of inspiration.

"Sir, close your eyes for a minute and imagine that you are blind. No colors, no sights of children playing, no fields of flowers, no sunset. Now imagine that suddenly there's a miracle. You open your eyes and your vision is restored! Are you going to jump? Or will you stick around for a week to enjoy the sights?"

"I'll stay for a week."

"But what happened to all the troubles?"

"I guess they're not so bad. I can see!"

"Well your eyesight is worth at least five million dollars. You're a rich man!"

"Your eyesight is worth at least five million dollars. You're a rich man!"

If you really appreciate your eyesight, the other pains are insignificant. But if you take it all for granted, then nothing in life will ever truly give you joy.

Misconceptions on the Road to Happiness

Misconception #1: "Once I know the tools for being happy, then it will work like magic."

Don't expect the results to come automatically. It is possible to understand how to attain happiness, yet not put it into practice. In fact, many people actually prefer to be comfortable and unhappy, rather than endure the discomfort of changing their habits.

Just as learning any new skill requires effort, you have to be willing to invest serious effort to achieve real happiness.

Misconception #2: "If I become content and satisfied with what I have, I'll lose my motivation to achieve more."

Happiness doesn't drain your energy. It adds more!

Ask a happy person: "I have a boat. Do you want to go fishing?"

"Great! Let's go!"

Now ask someone who is depressed, "C'mon, let's go fishing!"

"I'm tired. Maybe tomorrow. And anyway, it might rain..."

Happy people are energetic and ambitious. There's never enough time to do everything they want to do.

Misconception #3: If I want to be depressed, that's my own prerogative.

A beautiful Sunday afternoon. You're in the park having a picnic with friends. Suddenly the air is pierced by one person complaining: "Who forgot the forks? It's too hot for volleyball. I want to go home already."

When our mood negatively affects others, we recognize we have an obligation to be happy and not spoil the fun. That's why we try to put on a happy face when we're at a party.

But what about when we're at home with our spouse and kids? Or when we trudge into the office on Monday morning?

Like an open pit in the middle of the road, a sourpuss is a public menace. Being happy is part of being considerate to the people around us.

Happiness Exercises

These exercises will increase your gratitude and help you build a solid foundation for a lifetime of happiness:

a. The Daily Pleasure Count

To increase your appreciation of life, pinpoint some things you are extremely grateful for and count them every morning for one month, e.g.: your eyes, your hands, your children, your cat.

Set aside a few minutes each day to contemplate these pleasures and feel gratitude for them.

To really drive this home, sit down with your spouse or friend every evening and discuss one pleasure that each of you had that day. At the very least, you'll have a happier spouse or roommate! You can incorporate this into your family routine so that your children will also learn to appreciate their daily pleasures.

b. One-Hour Blessing-Fest

The next exercise is more challenging.

Spend one hour writing down everything for which you are grateful.

Most people fly through the first 15 minutes. The next 15 minutes the pen moves more slowly. The next 15 minutes get even tougher, but you can pull through if you include your eyebrows and socks...

The last 15 minutes are excruciating.

Once the list is compiled, add one new blessing each day.

The power of this exercise is clear: You must be conscious of all your blessings in order to appreciate whatever new blessings come your way.

c. Prioritize Your Blessings

To become a real expert at appreciation, prioritize your list. Which is more valuable: your hands or your feet? Eyes or ears? Sense of taste or your sense of touch?

Comparing pleasures forces you to articulate the subtle aspects of each one.

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