In the late 1980s, I studied the “learned helplessness theory” of depression with psychologist Martin Seligman. I had imagined becoming a psychologist since age 7, but there was something missing for me in the focus of my undergraduate psychology courses. That missing piece was simcha — joy.
A decade later, Seligman led the American Psychological Association in an inquiry of positive emotions. He began to ask: “What is joy and how do we become happier?” “How do people thrive in the face of adversity?”
Around the same time, the Jewish landscape began to shift. With dancing in the aisles on Shabbat and meditation services, contemporary Jews reclaimed the inquiry of the late 20th-centuryy Hasidic masters, when they asked: How do we “serve God with joy?” (Psalm 100:2)
The Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “It’s a great mitzvah to be in joy (simcha) always.” Based on his own experience of depression, Reb Nachman acknowledged that it was hard work to acquire and maintain a sense of simcha. He was also clear that living in simcha did not mean disregarding the pain and suffering of life. “You should pick an hour each day to break your heart and to pour out your words to God…But the whole day long you should be in joy.” (Likkutei Moharan_ 2:24) Perhaps Nachman would agree that as we attend to the pain in our hearts, we have greater access to the joy that may also be there. Conversely, we might learn that the more we settle our minds and hearts in joy and wellbeing, the greater will be our capacity to acknowledge suffering (ours and others’) with compassion and courage.
Can our tradition really mandate an internal emotional state? James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy, suggests that while we can’t force ourselves to be happy, we can “incline the mind” toward joy. Through dedicated spiritual practice, we can make it more likely that we will experience joy more of the time.
Traditional Judaism instructs us to say 100 blessings each day. They are expressions of gratitude for the miracles of the workings of the body and of the world around us. We look at the day with joy and, in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s language, radical amazement or “eyes of wonder.” Even the most mundane aspects of our lives become miraculous and sacred. As Heschel writes:
“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.” (God in Search of Man)
When I ask students to recall a time when they were joyful, they often speak of connection. Jewish ritual and prayer invite us to stop the rush of daily life, and focus on creating a sacred space to notice what we are doing. We slow down, pay attention, and have opportunities to connect and become mindful — paying direct attention to our moment-to-moment experiences. When we offer our children the ancient priestly blessing at holiday and Shabbat meals, we express our wishes for our children’s safety and peace. This is a sacred moment of passing blessings from one generation to the next. Mindfulness teachers Sylvia Boorstein and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg suggest a contemporary practice in which we send similar blessings not only to those who are most dear to us, but to all people.
In our fragmented culture, Judaism offers precious opportunities “to restore a sense of unity, joy, and connectedness in a world in which brokenness seems inevitable.” (Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy) We are reminded that we are not alone when we say Kaddish in a minyan. And at the Passover seder, when our rituals are those that have existed for generations among Jews around the world, we feel a sense of belonging.
In his latest book, Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman emphasizes that cultivating wellbeing requires not only gratitude and connection, but also a sense of purpose and meaning. Acting with kindness and compassion and working for justice can provide us with a sense of purpose rooted in Judaism, which also brings meaning and joy.
In our complex world, it is possible to incline our minds and hearts to greater appreciation, connection, meaning, and simcha.
Rabbi Margie Jacobs teaches mindfulness meditation and Jewish spirituality, and has the joy of working with couples as they prepare for marriage. Previously, she served as the Bay Area regional director for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.