'Unhappy Happiness,' Or What Rabbi Nachman And Pharell Have in Common

A Middle Path Between American Joy And Jewish Kvetching

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By Jay Michaelson

Published August 16, 2014.

Presaging the hit song of Summer 2014, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav famously taught, “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.”

In fact, Rabbi Nachman further observed, a century ahead of his time, sadness can lead to illness; poetically, he explained that this was because the body needs ten different kinds of music to survive, and all are threatened by gloom.

Yet Rabbi Nachman himself could not uphold this mitzvah. Throughout his entire short life, he struggled with depression – latter-day diagnoses have ranged from bipolar disorder to more serious mental illness – as well as with physical ailments. It is an impossibility to be happy always.

Nor is it morally desirable to be so. Be happy in the face of death, plague, devastation, cruelty, and injustice? Are we supposed to be happy at funerals, or when our loved ones are suffering? Should we be happy with the violence in Israel?

Clearly, either Rabbi Nachman’s ideal is unreachable, or it is more subtle than it first appears. I don’t have a stake in which is right – only in reclaiming a specific, and specifically Jewish, form of unhappiness from the glee-obsessed yet malaise-filled present cultural moment.

I call it “unhappy happiness,” a kind of happiness that lies beneath the surface, beneath, that is, what we ordinarily understand to be sadness or joy. I want to suggest that it offers a middle path between two unsatisfactory alternatives: the Botox-smiling cheer of the American Dream on the one hand (in which unrelenting peppiness coexists with some of the world’s highest levels of depression and dissatisfaction), and the self-defeating Oy Vey of Jewish irascibility.

I have taught about this deeper happiness for several years, but with challenging times in my family and in the Jewish community, I am relearning these lessons myself. If I am honest, I have to admit that I have been quite sad for most of the last year, with challenges in many aspects of my private and public lives. Those who know me well know of these challenges. It feels reasonable to feel sad in the face of them.

Of course, there have also been fun times, and a few rewarding ones: some honors and accolades, rabbinic ordination, hopeful moments in my family’s health struggles. But on balance, 5774 has been awful and I’m glad to see it go.

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