Happiness Hacks

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There’s no Fun in Hebrew

For a 2 minute audio click here 

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

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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

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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

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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.

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