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Happiness Hacks

Velly's Blog

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The “Inner Peace” Myth

For a 2 minute audio click here 

People have always wondered what are the forces and objectives that drive humanity

Jewish philosophy teaches that there is no one answer. Rather, two distinct and opposing agendas, which derive from two different modes of consciousness, are what drive us.

It is human nature to be inconsistent. Our desires can be contradictory. At times we seek base and materialistic pleasure, at other times we yearn for meaning and spirituality. Chassidic philosophy explains that this dichotomy is a result of the ongoing inner battle between our G-dly soul and our animal soul, each fighting for supremacy and control. 

The particulars of this struggle are unique to each individual. Our G-dly soul, which is the source of all that is good within us, strives for sanctity and transcendence, looking to use all our resources and talents in the interest of developing a relationship with G‑d and to help our fellows.

Our animal soul, however, fights to drag us down into mundane depths in order to fulfill its selfish desires. It is governed by instinct and impulse. The results of the animal drive range from basic self-centeredness, all the way to self-destructive action. Like competing wrestlers, one drive may be in control at one moment, the other drive in control the next.

In life, many look to attain inner peace and serenity. But when tranquility remains elusive, they feel deprived. This may lead to potentially destructive distractions and escapes - unfortunately even through the medium of artificial stimulants - to avoid inner tension.

In our lifetime on earth, inner peace is not a given. But our goal should be that the force of all that is good within us gains mastery over the animalistic. While the struggle may continue our entire lives, we must constantly be involved with good, plugging in deeper into our G-dly souls.

Of Comfort and Challenge

 For an under 2 minute audio click here 

The Talmud says: “Wherever the term “ויהי” and it was, is mentioned in scripture, it is an expression of pain” i.e. it introduces a painful narrative.

This idea can be applied to life as well. When we are very much preoccupied with thoughts of the past, discerning nothing good in the present and not anticipating the potential of the future, that is a sign of anguish. 

Jewish festivals - which often may seem like mere historical commemorations - are all in some way spiritually tied to the future. While Pesach begins by recalling the exodus from Egypt, the second half of the seder talks of our ultimate redemption and concludes with the declaration “Next year in Jerusalem”. Shavuot, to take another example, ostensibly commemorates the giving of the Torah to our ancestors on Sinai. Yet at its essence lies our commitment to keep the Torah into the future. Our rejoicing is not a preoccupation with the past, but lies in the vision of a glorious future. And although the future seems uncertain (thus posing challenges), it still generates joy because it holds the promise and potential of what may be.

From the past we may take comfort, but the future promises excitement. 

When we face new challenges, we are able to rise above mediocrity. Challenges prompt our very best efforts and the use of our abilities to their full extent. Challenges can spark journeys deep into our souls to discover what we are truly capable of.

The past is over. The anticipation and enticing realisation of what remains to be done far outweigh dusty memories, no matter how pleasant.

The Unavoidable and the Optional

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Some teach that a virtuous life is where one never is angry. Others suggest one should express their anger freely, for pent up anger can have serious negative emotional effects on a person. 

Both these approaches are extreme and a healthy medium is what we should persue. There is a difference between feeling and reacting. Feeling is unavoidable. Reacting is optional and reacting is a choice. With a clearheaded judgment one can decide the most sensible way to react with the best possible results. Without this judgment, anger turns into rage, which has no benefits and it only causes destruction.

Taking control of our reactions consist of training ourselves to exercise restraint when we are provoked, even if we feel that we are in the right. 

Practice restraint by:

Giving it some time

Pausing for time and not acting immediately on one’s anger firstly allows the anger to die away. When anger first explodes, it appears to be a raging fire that cannot be stopped. But doesn’t the biggest conflagration eventually burn out?

Secondly, pausing gives us time to regain control and operate with a rational and clear mind.

Responding in a soft voice

Rage feeds upon itself. Our own tone of voice can dictate the things we may say or do in that particular moment. A soft voice in response to rage is like depriving a fire of its oxygen.

Grandeur or Humility?

 For an under 2 minute audio version click here 

A healthy self-concept is vital to happiness and the Key to this is humility.  Yet, when humility is misunderstood and one sees themselves and being insignificant, they will stop caring about their actions, believing that they are of no importance, which can ultimately lead to the extremes of inactivity and laziness or immoral behaviour and slavery to ones every impulse.

Authentic humility is when one is completely unabsorbed with themselves.  Humble people keep complete focus on their mission in life, for they recognise that G-d created man not as a “needy” being but as a “purposeful” being.  This is a form of healthy personal grandeur, where one understands that a single act can change the world forever, that something eternal is at stake in every deed we perform, that every human being is a partner with G-d in the story of the universe, and that we each have a unique mission that only we can accomplish. This should lead to a profound sense of responsibility to carry out this mission in the best possible manner.

Reb Simcha Bunim pf Pshischa one gave a Chossid of his two pieces of paper.  One with the statement by Abraham in Genesis, “I am but dust and ashes”, and the other with the words of the Talmud, that everyone must say, “The world was created for my sake”, and told him to place the papers in two different pockets.   Reb Simcha than said that our challenge in life and the secret to purposeful living is to know when to flash which piece of paper.

A healthy “happiness inducing” self-concept, is keeping in mind and blending both the humility and the grandeur of the human being.

The Duty to Bless

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It’s human nature to experience an emotional spike of joy when we get something new.  But new ultimately becomes normal and we don’t find happiness in normal. So we look for the new new.  The cycle never ends. When we are so focused on getting more, we lose the chance to appreciate what we already have.
Many see the drive to accumulate more as a result of unhappiness and the need to fill the emptiness that unhappiness brings.  But in truth, the drive for more means that our minds and hearts are focused on something negative i.e. that which we don’t have. This is not just a roadblock to happiness, it is also a path that leads to unhappiness.
A Jewish antidote to this vicious cycle is offered by the Kuzari: “One’s pleasure is enhanced by the duty of saying blessings over everything we enjoy or that happens to us.”
The Jewish morning prayer (Shacharit) begins with several preliminary blessings to thank G-d for providing us with our daily needs and for performing everyday miracles.  Some of these blessings include thanks for waking in the morning, our body functioning properly, our sight, freedom, clothing, strength etc.
These blessings of thanks force us to begin our day with gratitude which is an antidote to taking things for granted and is therefore a key to happiness.
The gratitude we feel then for what we have does not come only from the thing itself but also from appreciating that it is the Almighty who bestowed all these pleasures upon us. This awareness greatly enhances the value of these pleasures.
Here is a practical exercise:
Imagine what your life would be like without some of the things we often so easily take for granted eg your home, family, job, health etc.  Then, recite a prayer thanking G-d for providing you with that gift.

My Every Need

 For an under 2 minute audio version click here 

The Jewish morning prayer (Shacharit) begins with several preliminary prayers and blessings to thank G-d for providing us with our daily needs and for performing everyday miracles.  These prayers are meant to be said at home before one goes to synagogue.  The objective of these blessings are to notice G-d’s favours in the repetitive rhythms of life and to appreciate His wonderful gifts to us. In these blessings, nothing is taken for granted, but as granted.

One of the blessings states: “Blessed are You, …O G-d…who has provided me my every need”.

A story is told of a righteous Jew who, despite living in utter poverty, was always naturally happy.  When asked how he was able to maintain such a positive attitude in the face of such trying circumstances, he responded that each day he prayed to G-d to provide all his needs.  “If I am poor than one of my needs is poverty.  Why should I be unhappy if I have whatever I need?”

It’s not possible for many of us to achieve this intense level of trust.  Still we can work to develop in our personal lives a more sincere trust in G-d. 

Children prefer lollies, but we would rather give them healthy and nourishing foods.   Children cry from injections, but we still immunise them because we know what is good for them.

Sincere trust in G-d means realising that G-d knows our needs better than even we do.  Even some very unpleasant experiences are actually for our good.

A practical take away:  try to handle adversity with less anger and resentment by contemplating that G-d is compassion and he gives me that which he knows, far better than I, what I truly need.

Happiness Depends on Self

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Usually external factors are beyond our control, thus we can’t depend on them to find true happiness. Further, if we do rely on external factors such as wealth or fame for our happiness , these factors master us.

For the individual to control his or her own happiness depends on developing a positive outlook to whatever life brings us.

This concept of seeking happiness in a way that depends only on yourself can be found in ‘Ethics of our Fathers’. Here the Mishna teaches that the wise man is one who learns from everyone, independent of any intellectual deficiencies in oneself.  The honourable person is one who honours others, irrespective of whether he receives honour from others. The wealthy person is one who is satisfied with what he has, regardless of the amount.

The message is quite clear.  Do not seek or demand happiness through factors dependent on anything external to us. Base your happiness on your own attitudes over which you can be the master.

Judaism does not deny that certain external situations are conducive to happiness. Nevertheless, none of these can guarantee personal happiness.  Observation of ourselves and others will show many examples where one is blessed with dream-like circumstances, but still cannot find an enduring state of joy.

Once we accept the responsibility for happiness, independent on the good or bad fortune in our lives, our attitudes and thought patterns will sustain our happiness, not the chase of illusions.

The Happiness Attitude

 For an under 2 minute audio version click here 

We all know what it feels like to be happy, but the actual source of our happiness has always been hard to pinpoint.

From a Jewish perspective, happiness is mostly determined by our thought processes and attitudes.  Thus happiness is really not a single feeling, but a state of being that is brought about through a range of attitudes and spiritual activities that make a person view life differently.

This is emphasised by the Zohar when it points out that the letters forming the Hebrew word B’simcha-בשמחה (with joy) are the same letters that spell Machshavah-מחשבה (thought)

While our circumstances are often not in our control, our mind is under our control.  Proper attitude is a character strength where instead of trying to change the situation, I change myself to fit the situation.

By constantly involving ourselves in spiritual activity, we can achieve a positive attitude that causes happiness. 

By placing less emphasis on the physical pleasure of life and by endeavouring go out of one’s self eg involving oneself with charity and volunteering, this uplifts us and makes us more appreciative of what we have, where our daily activities become a more joyous experience.

It is for this reason the Mishna in Avot states that the three physical emotions of jealousy, lust and glory remove a person from this world, as these are desires that can never be satisfied.

It is our spiritual activity that can put one’s life and all the nonspiritual activities life entails into proper perspective, leading to a much happier existence. 

Happiness & Spirituality

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The Hebrew word that most approximates happiness is osher.   In the Torah, the osher sense of happiness is achieved through spiritual activity.  In Jewish teachings, physical actions cannot bring happiness because man’s physical desires can never be totally satisfied.  Even things that at one point in life made us very happy, eventually fail to make us happy.  We experience an emotional spike of joy when we get something new, but then the new becomes normal and we don’t find happiness in normal. So we look for the new new.  The cycle never ends.  When we are so focused on getting more, we lose the chance to focus on what we already have.

Spiritual experiences, on the other hand, cause a much longer lived pleasure.  It is a rich pleasure that does not easily recede over time. 

The Torah’s examples of activities that lead to Osher are: Those who hold onto the Tree Of Life, that is, the Torah.  (Proverbs 3:18).  A Torah way of life, if lived properly, gives a person an inner feeling of wellbeing and satisfaction along with feelings of accomplishment and spirituality that can change a person’s entire attitude about life.

Another example is from Isaiah 56:2:  One who keeps the Shabbat and does not violate it is called happy.  A properly experienced Shabbat brings feelings that last well beyond the one day. 

The very first verse in Psalms begins with the statement that he who does not follow the advice of evil doers and who does not go in the path of the wicked will be happy.  By associating with and following the path of righteous people, one can experience a special feeling between people who care about each other.

Spiritual pleasure does not always need to be religious in nature.  Examples are experiences of deep friendships or meaningful experiences of personal growth.

There’s no Fun in Hebrew

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Many people tend to associate being ‘happy’ with having ‘fun’.  In Biblical Hebrew, however, there is no word for the latter.* Obviously, fun cannot be the definition of Jewish happiness.

Simchah is often the Hebrew word used for the state of being happy.  It’s a close approximation, buts it’s not the true definition of Jewish happiness.  For example the Torah commands us to be sameach on the holiday of Sukkot. But firstly how can the Torah command one to feel an abstract emotion such as happiness?  And secondly, why is Sukkot the only chag singled out for happiness?

Therefore sameach is generally translated as a term of satisfaction or appreciation.  This is, after all, something that one can be commanded: to appreciate what we have and to be satisfied with what G-d has given us.  As the famous dictum from ‘Ethics of our Fathers’ says “Who is truly rich?  One who is sameach/satisfied with their lot.”  The truly rich person in Jewish terms is the one who appreciates what he has, no matter how much or how little.

Thus to be commanded to be satisfied and appreciative on the festival of Sukkot makes sense.  This is a holiday that comes post-harvest.  For some it’s a time of self-indulgence or relaxation following physical labours.  For others it’s a time of frustration after a disappointing crop.  Hence the commandment of Sukkot is to be satisfied with one’s lot. 

Not appreciating what we have and always desiring more, means that our minds and hearts are focused on something negative: on that which we don’t have. This desire is not only the result of unhappiness and the need to fill the emptiness unhappiness creates.  It is also the original bridge to unhappiness. It is itself a cause for unhappiness. In this sense, it is a negative and harmful human trait.

Satisfaction and appreciation are still not the definition of Jewish happiness, but they definitely are the first steps that lead to it.

*Modern Hebrew has borrowed the Arabic word Kef to mean fun.

Of Miracles and Tests

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Tests demand from us more strength or abilities than we think we have. Through a test we have the ability to go beyond what our rational mind limits us to.

In Hebrew the word for test is ‘nesayon’ and the word for miracle is ‘nes’. Tests and miracles are closely related. A miracle is when G-d breaks out of His standard pattern of natural law and demonstrates unlimited powers. A test is when G-d invites you to do the same.

In the human experience we cannot escape the fact that we will be challenged both from without and within.  These conditions pose a big challenge to our moral and spiritual development.  But our biggest challenge and struggle is also our biggest asset.  For when we indeed overcome challenges through toil, this triumph introduces us to a new and higher level of existence.

 The following story illustrates this point. 

A man once visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe and confided, “I have a problem.  I’ve started to become more Torah observant, but I have a girlfriend who isn’t Jewish and I plan to marry her.”  The man braced himself for some kind of rebuke.  The Rebbe’s response took the man by total surprise.  “I envy you,” the Rebbe said.

“The tests you face are ladders that elevate you to great heights.  There are many ladders in life.  The ladders present themselves as life’s challenges and difficult choices.  The test you face is the ladders that elevate you to great heights; the greater the challenge the greater the ladder.  G-d has given you this difficult test because He believes you can overcome it and has endowed you with the ability to do so.  Very few are presented with a ladder as challenging as yours.  Don’t you see, then, why I envy you?”

The Purpose of Challenge

 For an under 2 minute audio click here 

Man is gifted with many talents and strengths.  But all too often they are not actualised.  When we face new challenges, however, we are able to rise above mediocrity and realise our enormous potential.

Challenges can extract the very best from us. As Nachmanides writes “The purpose of a test… is to take something from potential to reality.”

The Hebrew word for test and challenge is nisayon.  But nisayon can also mean ‘experience’ or ‘training’.

Challenges are a divine communication that let us know that we are capable of more, prompting our very best efforts and the use of the full extent of our abilities.  Challenges also teach us that this strength we never knew we had can be tapped into even in times that are not so distressing.  In this sense, pain is a call to action; it’s not enough to “get by”, but one must strive to reach greater heights.

Our forefather Avrohom faced 10 particular tests. With each test, Avrohom tapped deeper into the reservoirs of his soul.  This is indicated by the Torah’s very first command to Avrohom, ‘Lech Lecha,’ which is usually translated as “go for yourself.”  But in Chassidic thought it is translated literally as “Go to yourself” i.e. your true innermost self.  Avrohom’s tests were a journey deep into his soul to discover what he was truly capable of.

The Guilt Trap

 For an under 2 minute audio click here 

Sometimes unhappiness results from our feeling inadequate and not appreciating our self-worth.  We define ourselves by past failings and mistakes. Perversely our mind finds comfort in these feelings by rationalising them and portraying them to be noble feelings of guilt.  However these feelings can be very destructive. They can demoralise a person and detract from his or her energy to be focused on the present and the future.

Chassidism teaches that one of the ploys of our evil inclination is to overwhelm an individual with self-righteous guilt over past deeds.  When one is happy within one’s self, he or she has more self-control and doesn’t surrender to every impulse.  But a sad person who is overcome by guilt loses that power of resistance.  This is the evil inclination’s plan: to lure a person into feeling bad about past behaviour in order to entice him/her into even worse behaviour in the future. This leads to an even deeper feeling of degradation, which leads to a search for worse indulgences and so the cycle repeats itself.

Nonetheless it is crucial to take stock of our actions. Without this process how can one improve?  But to ensure that these reflections inspire growth rather than guilt entails ignoring the thoughts when they appear in our mind and instead appointing the time for self-examination ourself.  When we take charge of the process, our thinking is proactive, seeking positive change, not reactive which leads to guilt. We will know if our stocktaking was productive based on the results of the sessions with ourselves.

Transforming Envy

For a 2 minute audio click here  

Envy can be a force for good. 

When someone feels envious, it can motivate them to reach greater heights and often, is a catalyst for great achievements.

While we see envy as a negative trait, it is not inherently so.   It can be harnessed towards positivity. 

The challenge we face when dealing with envy is channeling jealousy in the right direction.

What is the turning point?  What is the juncture that brands envy as a trail to destruction or as a springboard to achievements?

Envy is a problem when we are blind to our own faults and blind to the opportunities that our failings may give way to. Envy becomes destructive when the opportunity for self-improvement is lost. 

When envy is driven by ego, we lose sight of our shortcomings. Most feelings of jealousy actually stem from an inflated sense of self-worth. Therefore, the battle becomes a fight between ourselves and our egos, not between ourselves and the feelings we may have. In order to channel envy for the good we must first deflate our sense of entitlement.

It’s not about us and what we think we deserve.  It is about feeling proud of our family and friends and allowing them to reap the benefits of their achievements.  When we can do that we can then create a space for envy to grow and to be channeled into a momentum for self-reflection and self-improvement.

Our struggle with envy is for the time being.  One day it will be gone forever as Rambam writes regarding he coming of Moshiach “In that era, there will be neither famine nor war, envy or competition, for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust.   The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d.”

Until that time, it is up to us to identify when envy can become destructive and instead, direct our feelings into a more constructive channel.

Tackling Envy

 For an under 2 minute audio version click here 

Envy is one of the Ten Commandments, but compared to the others it gets very little attention.  After all, when dealing with things like murder and theft, a little jealousy hardly seems to be a concern.

But in truth, envy is an everyday emotion that most people grapple with.  Nobody is free from its harmful influence. It is powerful and destructive and it can cripple our wellbeing.

Crucially, however, Judaism teaches that envy can be overcome and be used at a catalyst for personal growth.  Moments of jealousy are opportunities to transcend our current nature and to refine ourselves.

What is the root cause of envy?

Envy results from self-centeredness.  We view the world through our own lenses, seeing everything in reference to ourselves.  This leads to envy.  When one is unable to view others’ success, achievements and acquisitions in isolation, we grow jealous and ask ourselves “What about me?”

We cannot cure ourselves of envy by fighting it head on.  Why tackle the symptom and not the cause? We must strive for selflessness by dedicating ourselves to being more giving, compassionate and humble.

Then when our friend tells us about their promotion, their holiday or nachas from their children, I can truly be happy for them.  I can see their success in isolation and not in terms of myself.  Then it’s my friend’s moment, not mine. 

This character development is not easy.  It entails expanding our perceptions to include others besides our precious selves.

But it begins with crossing a great divide from our instinctive, subjective and egotistical take on our surroundings to a more spiritual and humble perspective.

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