Happiness and Meaning

One of my sermons from the High Holidays.

I thank all the contributors.

Happiness and Meaning

One of my favorite videos and songs the past couple years is the song, “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams.

It seemed like the whole nations was singing and dancing to this song! It was part of the soundtrack for an animated movie called, “Despicable Me 2,” and an Oscar nominated song. Why? I will say, as a musician, it was well written. The lyrics are full of happiness reminding us about sunshine, hot air balloons; and that even with bad news, if our level of happiness is high enough, we can not be brought down.

I think the question now is how do we achieve this? According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word, happy, means the feeling of pleasure and enjoyment because of your life and situation.

The word for “happy” in Hebrew is “sameach.” Judaism believes in “Simcha,” happiness despite what is going on, not because of it. It is an inner sense of well-being not dependent on anything else. Happiness is not about fun or the pursuit of pleasure, though Judaism believes these are important. It is not about getting what you want when you want it. It is about understanding that the world is what it is and though we can try to make it better, we cannot fix or change everything.

I think happiness is finding something to celebrate every day, no matter how small it may be.

It is a mitzvah, yes a commandment to be happy. Mitzvah g’dolah liyot b’simcha tamid, it is great to be happy always. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav taught this when we were in crisis, threatened by riots and progroms, threatened from within by a heavy-handed sense of legalism, institutionalism, and hierarchy. We responded by living according to Reb Nachman’s teaching.

Raise your hand if you want to be happy! I do not mean a quick-fix kind of happiness that is fleeting and would make you feel dissatisfied shortly, and I do not mean a, “Don’t worry, be happy,” kind of happiness. I mean a deep happiness, a sense of fulfillment, of purpose. The type of happiness that Aristotle imagined around 2400 years ago when he invented the pursuit of eudemonia, the science and philosophy of happiness. The type of happiness Maimonides took from Aristotle 850 years ago when he wrote, “The Guide For the Perplexed.” The type of the philosopher, Victor Frankl, discovered when he emerged from Ashwitz and realized the necessity of laughter, happiness, and meaning; and the type of happiness that Natan Sharansky, a refusenik, sitting in solitary confinement and knowing his life was happier than any guard or representative in the Russian Regime.

Did you know there was a college course on happiness? Harvard Professor, Tal Ben Shakar is teaching this “science” at Harvard. So, it is not just a goal in life, it is a science. In the science of eudemonics, happiness, one can get a Master’s Degree! The science of eudemonics is not just a feeling,, it has physiological trackers, for example, CT scans, EEGs, and biopsies that demonstrate that without happiness, plaque can build up on neural transmitters.

Positive Psychological expert Emiliya Zhivolovskya teaches that there are six key pathways to achieving happiness:

  1. Positive emotions
  2. Engagement (being involved)
  3. Positive relationships
  4. Meaning
  5. Accomplishment
  6. Vitality

Rabbi Noach Weinberg, one of the Rabbis who founded Baal T’shuvah teaches, “happiness is a universal longing, yet, so many people are unhappy. Why? Western society commonly perveives happiness as the outcome of what you achieve and acquire. Examples:

  1. I am going to buy a new car, maybe, I will be happy!
  2. I need a change, I think I am going to buy new furniture.
  3. If somebody would give me a million dollars, I would be so happy! I really would!
  4. Let’s go shoe shopping! I only have only 14 pairs in my closet. None of them match this pair of shorts!

With all, or at least, most of the above, these purchases or acquirements lead to only temporary happiness, although, sometimes I think the one million dollars may give me more than temporary happiness.

I read an article that was published in a newspaper called, The Atlantic, by Emily Esfahani Smith October 22, 2014. It is about Victor Frankl, a Holocaust Survivor. Mr. Frankl is a Psychiatrist and author of the book, “Man’s Search For Meaning, which was was published in 1946.

Mr. Frankl saw in the concentration camps those who found meaning in the most horrendous circumstances, they were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

In 1991, the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club listed the book, “Man’s Search For Mearning,” as one of the most influentital books in the U. S. After many years, it’s emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self, seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in search for meaning. Frankl wrote, “To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture, that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to be happy, but, happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue (to take place afterward or as a result.) One must have a reason to be happy.

Even though Americans are the happiest they have been in years, 40% have not discovered a satisfying life purpose, in other words, these people have not found meaning in their lives.

Research has demonstrated having a purpose and meaning in life increases life satisfaction; improves mental and physical health, enhances self-esteem and decreases chances of depression. It is interesting; the pursuit of happiness leaves people less happy.

Psychologists found, leading a happy life is associated with being a taker, while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a giver.

Happiness without meaning characterizes a lifestyle where things go well; needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult situations are avoided. Being happy is associated with being a taker. Being happy means one is receiving a lot of benefits from others.

Psychologists give, what they call, an evolutionary explanation. If you have a need or desire, like hunger, you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy when they get what they want or desire. This is one thing we have in common with animals.

Frankl derived from his experiences in the Concentration Camps witnessing human suffering that, being human always points and is directed to something or someone, other than oneself, be it a meaning to fulfill or another human encounter. The more one forgets oneself, by giving oneself to a cause, or another person to love, the more human one is.

I asked people on social media about what they felt happiness is. Here are some of their responses.

An acquaintance of mine says, “We are to do good deeds to achieve happiness. Hopefully when we do the required mitzvot, the feeling of happiness will come along. We are commanded at times to be happy. Can we really do this? It is called complete faith.”

Another friend says, “My comment comes from working with older adults professionally for the past 14 years. They have taught me that we can choose happiness. I’ve met seniors in poor health, seniors who outlived their children, and those who have faced numerous other changes in their lives. Yet, because of their positive attitudes, they can still be happy. I have also met older adults who are just unhappy no matter what. So, in my opinion, it’s all about attitude. Try to find the good, rather than looking for the bad, and happiness can be achieved. When we choose happiness, we can endeavor to make others happy as well.”

A colleague of mine, Rabbi Arthur Segal from South Carolina says, “Judaically, happiness comes when we align our will and our ego, with Hashem’s will; put others first and drop the yokes society places on us and pick up the yoke of Hashem which causes all the other yokes to leave us. I teach, drop the ‘I’ as that is ego, delete the want as that is desire, and Hashem always gives us what we need, and one if left with happiness.

In the year 5776, may we find the meaning and happiness in our lives, and let us say, amen.

Compiled and written by Cantor Risa Askin

Used references from: Rabbi Melissa Simon, friends and acquaintances.

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About cantorrisa

I am a Cantor, Judaic Studies, and music teacher. I enjoy sharing my knowledge, and help people from young to old love being Jewish. I teach and sing in several synagogues and schools in the area. I officiate all life cycle events and teach students, children and adults, privately for their b'nai mitzvah ceremonies. I also enjoy studying Bible with all faiths either individually or in small groups (chevruta). I conduct Shabbat and High Holiday Services at an Assistant and Independent Living Facility. I have been there for 13 years! In my spare time, I teach key board and guitar. I am married to a wonderful man, have two children and six grandchildren. My hobbies are learning, reading, crocheting and knitting, and of course my music. When we can afford it, I do love to travel.
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