> Holidays > Sukkot > Themes & Insights

Choosing Happiness

September 29, 2009 | by Judy Gruen

Make the joy of Sukkot a daily part of your life.

It's ironic that of all the Jewish holidays, only Sukkot is singled out as the "season of our happiness." Why not Passover, when we were finally freed from Egyptian bondage? Why not Purim, when Haman's genocidal plot against us was foiled? How can we be commanded to be happy on this holiday, especially when we are told to leave our comfortable homes and dwell in our sukkahs?

In fact, Sukkot reveals that we will never find true happiness in even the sturdiest material possessions, such as our homes. And we know from painful, tumultuous economic events how quickly material wealth can also disappear. During Sukkot, we celebrate the only "wealth" that is permanent: our spiritual connection and God and His abiding love for the Jewish people. It brings home the idea that happiness isn't about having; it's about our attitudes.

During Sukkot, the Almighty's Clouds of Glory protected the Jews during 40 long years of desert wanderings. These Clouds of Glory, and the manna that fed us, were tangible proof of God's care and protection. That up-close and personal connection between the Jewish people and God is the source of real, transcendent happiness, and we have a special opportunity to tap into it, even when sitting in a flimsy sukkah.

Is it possible to hold on to the happiness of Sukkot and make it part of our lives all year-round? Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., a happiness expert who teaches positive psychology and education at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya, Israel, believes we can.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Ben-Shahar excelled academically, athletically, and socially. Still, he wasn't happy. Given everything he had going for him, "it didn't make sense," he recalls. "I should have been happy, and I was baffled. I realized something was missing, and decided to look closely at my life." As part of his search for answers, Ben-Shahar switched majors from computer science to philosophy and psychology. In the process, he found not only the keys to happiness, but a career in helping others find it as well.

Ben-Shahar went on to earn a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Harvard, and for four years taught one of the university's most popular elective courses, on positive psychology. As a professor at Harvard, Ben-Shahar found that today's students shared the same struggles he once did, and that being affluent and smart enough to attend one of the world's most prestigious universities was no guarantee of happiness.

"Happiness and unhappiness do not discriminate," he explains. "They are distributed evenly across society, age and economic sectors. But the United States leads the pack in terms of the pressure that is put on students to get high grades, to always think about the future. Adults in the work world face similar pressure. But with all this emphasis on the future, many people end up missing the present."

In addition to his courses, Ben-Shahar is the author, most recently, of The Pursuit of Perfect. Through his books and lectures, he shares what he has learned attaining the often elusive goal of happiness. Much of his advice runs counter to the vaunted values of American society, such as material success.

Additional pay and professional accolades don't make us happier. Rather quality time off to savor the joy we already have.

"Working more hours may make us more money, but we'll pay the 'ultimate currency' if we do," he explains. "The fact is, additional pay and professional accolades don't make us happier. More quality time off to savor the joy we already have does. We all feel more time pressures today, and part of it is economic, but part of it involves the choices we make about how we spend our time."

Numerous studies on happiness have consistently confirmed many of the same happiness boosters, and Ben-Shahar notes that all of these are built in to the fabric of Jewish life. One of them is a day of rest. "We know that people who take a day of rest are happier and more productive than those who don't, because we have to 'recreate' if we want to create. This is not only a value but also a tool to success."

A second one is gratitude. "Research shows that people who express hakarat hatov, gratitude for what they have, are happier people and more generous as well," he observes. And from the moment a Jew wakes up, he or she has unlimited opportunities to express gratitude, from saying "modeh ani" upon arising from bed, to making a blessing after going to the bathroom for a healthy body, to blessings for food, and innumerable others included in daily prayers, even for "small" things such as being able to see and stand up straight.

Practicing rituals and having a sense of spirituality also make people happier, Ben-Shahar notes. "Going to a synagogue is valuable, as is spending time with family around the dinner table. Rituals are part of most happy people's lives."

Some philosophers in earlier generations wrongly predicted that science and technological innovation would become the new god. While it brought wealth, it didn't bring happiness for those who bought into the philosophy. "Viktor Frankel called living without God an 'existential vacuum,'" Ben-Shahar says, adding that secularists who like to point to Nietzsche's famous quote that "God is dead" completely misunderstand his meaning. "Nietzsche didn't say this with satisfaction, but with pathos. He realized that a life without God meant a deep existential emptiness for many." Rabbi Nachum Braverman, Executive Director of Jerusalem Partners and the author of The Bible for the Clueless but Curious -- A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Real People, observes that these undisputed ingredients for happiness: gratitude, community, observing a day of rest, and a spiritual basis, are all built on a framework for living that transcends the self. "Living only for yourself and about yourself is a cramped and diminished way to life," he explains. "That's why happiness is not a goal, it's a byproduct of living well. When it becomes a goal, it's just another form of egotism: it's all about me, and if that's the case, you can never find it. Jewish values and practice keep people focused on something broader than their own egos, and from living as impetuously as their emotions might dictate. Living in a community that gives context and offers meaningful relationships with people with shared values is a surer path to happiness."

A happy life is not a pain-free life.

But a happy life is not a pain-free life, both teachers agree. "The only people who don't experience painful emotions are either dead or psychopaths," Ben-Shahar explains. "A full life has sadness, anger, envy, fear, and disappointment. If we don't give ourselves permission to experience painful emotions, they intensify, become toxic and they stick. When we let them flow through us, they weaken and dissipate."

Still, the experience of happiness is very subjective, in part because we choose how to respond to pain and disappointment. "I believe that people can make the best of things that do happen," Ben-Shahar notes. "Resilient people look for and create growth from difficult situations. You can choose to be devastated by events, or you can derive benefit from them."

Ultimately, Ben-Shahar says, happiness results from the innumerable choices we make, including choosing to feel gratitude even during hard times: "Do I focus on the fact I have my health and food on the table, or do I focus on the fact that I have to sell my Ferrari? Focus on the yesh versus the ain (what I have versus what I do not have)." There are few better opportunities for this kind of focus than during Sukkot, when we eat, and possibly even sleep, in little booths that are built for contemplation, not construction awards.

Rabbi Braverman adds that living a meaningful life helps us to cope with loss, even incomprehensible loss. "When the Mishna asks the famous question, 'Aizeh hu ashier?' (Who is wealthy?) it means that we have all been dealt a different portion in life, with individual tests and opportunities. When you stop fighting against your portion, you can realize it for the opportunity it is."

If you want to ensure that the joy of Sukkot lasts longer than your sukkah decorations, try some of Ben-Shahar's tools for happiness: start a gratitude journal, exercise, meditate, learn therapeutic cognitive techniques, simplify your life, set goals, identify your strengths and find your passion. Not enough? Here are more from his website:

  1. Give yourself permission to be human. Accepting emotions -- such as fear, sadness, or anxiety -- as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions leads to frustration and unhappiness.
  2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. Make sure you have happiness boosters throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.
  3. Happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our financial or social status. Our well being is determined by how we choose to interpret external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?
  4. Simplify! We are trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. We compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.
  5. Remember the mind-body connection. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.
  6. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.

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