Are Religious People Happy?
I grew up Orthodox but fell out of practice in my early 20s. In the few years since then I have dabbled with several other religious beliefs or just secular living, and I never really felt fulfilled.
At this point, I’m finding myself slowly drawn back towards Orthodoxy. But one basic issue is bothering me. Growing up, I was never turned on to the Orthodox lifestyle. It just felt like a bunch of laws and restrictions, telling us how we must behave at all times. I realize that this is pleasing to God and earns us the World to Come, but is that all there is to it? Is Judaism supposed to be uplifting and spiritually rewarding? Does it make a person happier and more fulfilled? Or does it really all just come down to living a drearier, more burdensome life, but that it’s worth it in order to earn a place in the World to Come?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for raising such a fundamental issue, and it's nice to hear from someone who is sincerely seeking.
On its most profound level, Judaism teaches us that religion is not only a means of earning the World to Come. It is equally God’s directions for living happily and meaningfully in this world. Rabbi Noah Weinberg would describe the Torah as the “user’s guide” God gave Israel for living in this world. The universe is an enormously large and intricate place. And human beings are wondrously complex creations. In the years of life God has granted us we can reach fantastic heights. But we can also make ourselves completely miserable. God gave us the commandments to guide us, to help us realize our potential and live meaningful, fulfilling, and happy lives.
As a result, many people find that religious living is not only their ticket to eternal reward. It is at the same time simply the nicest way to live in this world. The very same God who created us and knows our innermost natures taught us how we can best enjoy life – in the most physically, mentally, and emotionally fulfilling manner possible.
What makes religious people happy? Of course, this is a personal question and there are probably many valid answers, but I’ll write some of the ideas which I feel are most significant.
Probably the most fundamental issue is that Judaism teaches us life has a purpose. God created us for a reason – to develop ourselves spiritually so that we will be able to enjoy a relationship with God in the World to Come. As a result, every moment of our lives is purposeful. We have a goal we can always strive towards. There is thus no empty, hopeless feeling – of what difference does anything really make. Our entire lives are significant. Of course there are times for vacations and taking it easy as well. But fundamentally, our lives are meaningful – and so inherently valuable.
The second major issue is lifestyle. Generally speaking, Judaism provides us with a very healthy mixture of rigid rules and of personal expression. It instructs us to live more or less as psychologists teach us to raise our children – with fairly rigid structure, but with an overall sense of love and of being wanted and valued.
To people on the outside, religious life can appear very drab. Religion guides almost every area of our lives from the public to the most private. People follow all the same rules, they eat the same food, and they often dress the same, look the same, act the same, etc.
In truth, there is hardly as much conformity in Judaism as it appears on the outside. But in fact, human beings function best living within rules and bounds. Our lives are not just empty and shapeless, with nothing really mattering. There is a purpose to life, and God tells us just what acts help us achieve that purpose. Every part of our life is directed and helps bring us to our overall goal.
Many of the daily activities of the religious lifestyle help us feel our sense of purpose and connection to God. There are daily prayers, blessings to say before and after eating, Torah study, acts of kindness, Shabbat observance, etc. To children they may feel like burdens: why do we have to pray so much, why can’t we use electricity on Shabbat, etc. But as we grow into such acts we find them to be enormously uplifting ways of feeling connected to God throughout our days.
Even with all the above being said, Judaism really does not micromanage our lives. With all the laws and regulations, most of the big issues of life are really our own to decide – what type of person should we be, what field should we work in, where should we live, what areas of development should we most focus on, etc. With all the rules, Judaism really does not tell us whom we should be. It only gives us a healthy framework within which we can discover ourselves – and make our own personal journey towards God.
Another very basic issue is how Judaism views God’s involvement in the world. We see God as being actively and intimately involved in our lives. Virtually everything that happens to us, whether good or bad, we see as an act of God. Not only does this help ingrain us with the sense of how precious every human being is to God, but we also see purpose in everything that happens to us. If something goes wrong, it is not a pointless, pitiful shame – something we just wish wouldn’t have happened. It is God speaking to us. He is punishing us for our sins or nudging us to improve our ways. But it is for a good reason. It is almost as if nothing bad could ever happen to us – because it is all the will of our loving God. We live constantly with God, and we feel His love and closeness in everything that occurs to us.
Another general area in which Judaism fosters happiness is in family and community life. Judaism is strongly pro-marriage and raising a family. It frowns on (but does not forbid) divorce and husbands and wives are required to be faithful to one another. As a result, most religious Jews marry for life, and most grow up in stable, loving families – with the sense of wellbeing and security that engenders. And such an upbringing can help us gain the slightest inkling of what it means that God Himself is our loving Father in Heaven.
This follows to the next generation as well. Raising large families in stable homes will generally mean that parents live to see generations of loving grandchildren and great-grandchildren, faithful to the same traditions they passed on to their children. And rather than feelings forgotten and abandoned in old age, thanks to the commandments to honor our parents and elders, older people will generally still be very much a part of the family and feel a strong sense of their eternality, with many holiday gatherings and happy occasions to look forward to.
(As I once heard a great rabbi comment, it is looking back at the end of one’s life that one can really observe the difference. Imagine the office desk of the religious person as he reaches the end of his career. It is covered with pictures of loving descendants and sources of nachas. He can look back on a life filled with long-term joy and satisfaction. By contrast, his secular coworker may have well lived a much more exciting life and may have enjoyed many more short-term thrills in his younger years. But in his old age he is likely to have far less to show for himself. (Naturally, there are very many exceptions to such simple rules, going in both directions, but we are discussing the general pattern.))
On a larger scale, someone who is part of a religious community, of like-minded people, usually has a much stronger sense of belonging and community support. He feels himself a part of something much greater than himself. He has people there for him in his times of need. And in addition, he will enjoy much more convivial social life.
Fascinatingly, virtually nothing I wrote above has anything to do with receiving reward in the World to Come. That is true as well of course - and in fact all else utterly pales before that. Yet at the same time, it really isn’t surprising that living a life of Torah engenders happiness in this world as well. For as I wrote above, the very same God who created mankind knew the exact recipe for his Creations to experience personal fulfillment.