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Choosing Happiness

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

The power for happiness is in our hands, and no one else's.

It's all over the news again. We, a nation with the right to the pursuit of happiness, seem to know very little about what it is or how to attain it.

In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert focuses on our ability (or actually inability) to predict what will make us happy. He discovered that while we rebound from tragic events much more quickly than we anticipate, the same is true of happy events. The effect is rarely long lasting. Our level of happiness remains relatively stable.

Professor Gilbert's findings ring true if we are depending on external events to make us happy. But if we're relying on external occurrences, we're only fooling ourselves. Our tradition teaches that we, and we alone, have control over our happiness.

That's because, in Jewish understanding, while we can't control the external circumstances of our lives, we can control our reactions to it. This is a crucial point of understanding and an important lesson for our children, our parents, and most of all, ourselves.

Not only is the famous "Jewish guilt" ineffective, it's an illusion. An extra visit to your mother, more time with the grandchildren, may be pleasurable experiences. But true and enduring happiness results from how we respond to whatever life throws at us.

If our grandchildren live far away, we can choose to take pleasure in their happy and joyful lives or repeatedly bemoan their absence. (We can also encourage/badger them to move closer but I'm getting too personal!) The latter is a double whammy -- not only are we morose and complaining but we've fallen into the aforementioned trap of believing that a particular event or situation will ensure our happiness.

No one can make us happy or make us sad.

If our children live close by or with us, we can choose to take pleasure in their company and their desire to maintain a close relationship with us, or gripe that they are around too much and will never grow up.

This principle is true for both significant and trivial situations. No one can make us happy or make us sad.

A friend told me recently that it's a special blessing to be able to prepare for a child's wedding with a lev Simcha, a joyful heart. "And," she added, "I haven't merited doing that yet." There are a lot of stresses in planning a wedding, in readying a child for marriage. We can choose to be overwhelmed by them or we can focus on the thrill of having our prayers answered. (Is this one too unrealistic?!)

It's both empowering to recognize it's all in our power, and intimidating. It usually involves retraining ourselves, recalibrating our reactions.

Yes, there are neighborhoods with cheaper housing. But do they have a kosher restaurant across the street? Is there a sense of community? Yes, there are families with greater income. But is their father ever home? It's easy to blame the "fates," to blame the Almighty for our lack of happiness. It's much easier to do that than to take responsibility for it ourselves.

It requires effort. Our default position is frequently unhappiness. Society, despite the research, seems to promote the contrary position that events -- the right job, spouse, children, vacation, thread count -- will make us happy.

But it's simply untrue. An unhappy single person may be an unhappy married one. Children frequently increase the stress in a marriage. That large house of your dreams requires constant upkeep. And it may rain during your vacation.

Yet, believe it or not, you can still choose to be happy.

I was once on a group trip and when we arrived at the hotel late at night and exhausted, scenes from Psycho danced through our minds. It was cold and rainy, the windows (where there was actual glass in them) wouldn't shut, plaster was falling from the ceilings, there was no heat, the sheets were ripped (if you dared venture that far) and the electricity was sporadic at best. After the initial shock (when our ability to react happily was definitely put to the test), we had a great time. Since the rooms were so miserable, we decided to congregate in the lobby. Instead of complaining, we decided to laugh. And laugh and laugh. And everyone on that trip forged closer bonds with each other than would have occurred had we retreated to cozy, inviting rooms in a more "ideal" hotel.

Obviously some situations are more serious and more challenging than others. Sometimes happiness is harder to attain. But it is important to recognize that the power for happiness is in our hands. And no one else's. The choice is ours to make.

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