What Jews Know About Happiness
Some time ago I learned that Jews are the happiest people in America. Out of hundreds of thousands of interviewees, religious and secular Jews scored the highest overall points on Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index of 2011, which included happiness level. As a Jew myself, I would have never guessed it. I associated this culture with the sting of anti-Semitism, the horrors of Holocaust, the pride for achievements in arts and sciences, the proverbial love for chicken soup, and even the self-depreciating and derisive humor of Larry David and Woody Allen. But joy and happiness never sprang to mind as a prominent part of Jewish identity.
I came across this finding as I was looking up positive psychology resources for tips on how to raise happy kids. Any parent at some point probably felt the frustration and helplessness when faced with kids getting upset when told to leave a playground after hours of play or not getting one more candy. How can we convince them to stay joyful for having had fun on the swings and slides and having enjoyed the candy they just ate? What skills can we cultivate so that our children of any age thrive in life, as complicated as it is? Since I found myself belonging to a group of people who apparently know about it, I decided to dig a little further and look up Jewish resources on joy and happiness. That is how I realized that I was unaware of a large part of the Jewish culture that is resilient and joyous, and which proclaims happiness one of the most important goals in life.
There are obvious and hidden lessons in all facets of Jewish heritage: folk tales and poignant life stories, historical accounts as well as religious texts, mystic thoughts and modern scientific discoveries, age-old traditions and jokes. The mosaic pieces fit into a picture full of joy and contentment.
Learning that the Jewish culture is at core a happy one was surprising to me. But on top of that I have made another unexpected discovery. I was brought up in a thoroughly secular household, but I went to Jewish camps. I had some knowledge of the Torah, I knew the major holidays, and I thought I had a general understanding of what Judaism is about. So when I read some religious texts on the subject of happiness, I was taken by surprise that several sources say that God wants us to be happy, to enjoy this world and all its experiences. I am not an expert on religion, but it seems to me that in this respect Judaism is different from Christianity, in which the real joy is promised in the afterlife, not during the earthly life, or Buddhism, which recommends to avoid pain and suffering by avoiding strong attachments to this world. In contrast, Judaism encourages us to appreciate and find joy in every spectacular or routine aspect of our lives, starting with the waking moment.
What is more, I came across a short list of questions we will have to answer for when we go to heaven, the list of what our sages believe our lives boil down to. One of the questions God asks is if we enjoyed His world. Which means that not only we all could be happy, but Judaism insists that it’s our duty, and God will hold us accountable for it. It shows that happiness is not just a pleasant state to pursue and occasionally be in, but our responsibility to ourselves, our families, our communities, our world. This passage (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 48b) and its interpretation enriched my understanding of Judaism and of the importance of happiness.
My exploration of Jewish sources provided me with what I was looking for and more: specific tips on how to be a happier person came with expanded knowledge about my heritage. I now teach my kids about gratitude, positive attitude, kindness, curiosity, contentment and other happiness skills along with teaching them about the Jewish culture. Besides, I find that these same skills help me deal with my life’s varied circumstances as well.
After everything I learned, I felt a little troubled that this side of the Jewish culture is not acknowledged as much as some others, and that despite the Gallup-Healthways finding happiness is not a big part of Jewish identity among Jews themselves or among non-Jews. It inspired me to give an ELI talk about it happiness and Jewish identity .
This experience and lots of research eventually turned into a book, Happiness the Jewish Way: A Practical Guide to Happiness through the Lens of Jewish Wisdom, a look at the Jewish happiness tradition through secular eyes. I include all my finds as well as lots of practical tips on how everyone can use this wisdom for more joie de vivre in their lives. Being happy is a skill that we can learn ourselves and teach to our children. And same as any other skill, the more we practice it, the better we become at it!