Happiness Hacks

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A Jew is a Thankful Being

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“When a person pours his feelings of love into words, the act of speaking fuels and intensifies the love”, said Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, the 5th Chabad Rebbe. “Through speaking about it, the emotional energy radiates with more passion, and the person is aroused with more love and fondness for the object of his love. The same applies to all emotions: when they are not expressed through speech, they are reduced until they completely dissipate.  When they are expressed verbally, they augment and grow considerably”.

By focusing on and especially talking about the good in our lives, we foster happy emotions. The more we focus on and talk about it, the more intense these happy feelings become.
Throughout the day, Jews recite many blessings of gratitude.  There are blessings for various foods that we eat (before and after), for benefiting from pleasant aromas, for reaching milestones, for hearing good news and many, many more.
The attitude of gratitude is so important that it’s ingrained in our very name. We are called “Jews”; this name comes from Judah or Yehuda, the name of Leah’s fourth son. Yehuda is a cognate of the word “Hoda’ah”, which means “to offer thanks”.  This became the name of the Jewish people because it defines who we are, namely thankful beings.  
This attribute is the antithesis of a sense of entitlement. We see ourselves as debtors who owe so much to our forebears and our progenitors. We are not creditors to whom something is owned. 
Hence a person who builds gratitude into his life will find more happiness because expressing an emotion feeds it and strengthens it.

Not FOR Granted But AS Granted

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While people often think of prayer as a time to ask for something from G-d, much of Jewish prayer in fact consists of praise and gratitude for His kindness.

For Jews, the first seconds after awakening each morning are dedicated in prayer to G-d, thanking Him for the gift of life. “I thank you living and eternal king for mercifully restoring my soul within me.  Your faithfulness is great.”
A few minutes later (after using the bathroom) we recite the following blessing:“Blessed are you, lord our G-d, who formed man with wisdom, and created within him many orifices and cavities. It is revealed and known before the throne of Your glory that if but one were to be blocked, or one of them were ruptured, it would be impossible to survive even for a short while.  Blessed are You, Lord, Who heals all flesh and performs wonders.” 
In the Amidah we say:
“We shall thank You and recount Your praise, evening, morning, and noon, for our lives that are in Your hand, for our souls that are entrusted to You, for Your miracles that are with us daily, and for you continual wonders and goodness.”
We thank G-d for the “miracles that are with us daily.”  We think, for example, of the splitting of the Sea (for the Children of Israel escaping Egypt) as a miracle. In truth, however, the existence of life itself and all of the things that are working well are nothing short of miraculous too.  Nature itself is G-d’s miracle; we just happen to be used to it.  In our prayers, nothing is taken for granted but as granted.
Indeed, during the morning prayers each day we recite the following verse, the very last verse from Psalms: “Every soul shall praise G-d.”
The word Neshamah, ‘soul’, is a cognate of the word Neshimah, ‘to breathe’, which yields the following Midrashic interpretation: “For each and every breath we take, we should praise G-d. It is written “Every soul shall praise G-d.” Read it as, “for every breath praise G-d.”
This encapsulates the objective of so many of our prayers, that is, noticing G-d’s favours in the repetitive rhythms of life and appreciating His wonderful gifts to us.

Gratitude is a Verb

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Gratitude is an antidote to taking things for granted and therefore, a key to happiness.

Judaism has a built in system that prompts us to pay close attention and to speak about the good in our lives.  It’s called Hakarat Tovah – recognising the good – and it expresses itself in various Mitzvot, among them, the Mitzvah of Bikurim.
The Mitzvah of Bikurim commenced when the Jewish people first settled the land of Israel. 
Each farmer would take the first fruits of each harvest and bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem. The farmer would then recount the story of the exodus from Egypt and the gift G-d gave to the Jews: a land flowing with milk and honey.
The average farmer who brought Bikurim was born in Israel.  The miracles and exodus from Egypt occurred long before his time. He was used to being able to feed himself and his family.  The chances were quite high that these blessings would not be thought of.  To combat this, G-d commanded the Jewish people to express gratitude – in word and deed – for all these positive things that benefit the farmer.  Hence gratitude is a verb. It's not just how I feel, it's what I do.
Powerfully, the verse following the instruction of the Mitzvah of Bikurim continues: “and you shall rejoice in all the good that G-d has given you and your family”.
This focused and verbalised gratitude prompts the farmer to be happy for the blessings he has received. This ritualising of gratitude makes one not take his blessings for granted. 
Although the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, the concept of Bikurim received eternal life in Jewish ritual. Thus the Midrash teaches: “Moshe foresaw that the temple would be destroyed and the offerings of the first fruits would cease.  He took the initiative and ordained that the Jewish people should pray three times a day”, thus counting their blessings.

Rich But Not Happy

For an under 3 minute audio version click here 

While levels of material prosperity are on the rise, so are levels of depression. One in six Australians aged 16-24 currently experiences an anxiety condition and the top issue of concern among Australians in this age group is coping with stress.

What is particularly shocking is that the percentage of Australian people experiencing depression in 1960 was 8% whereas in 2016 this has risen to 25%. Depression is killing almost double the amount of people as road accidents.

This leads us to a simple question with a complex answer: If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy?
From a Jewish perspective, our happiness lies in something other than what we possess. We need to have proper thoughts and attitudes about the things we have. When we do, we will have paved another avenue leading to our happiness.
Deriving happiness from the things we have is complicated.  The 11th century sage Rabbi Bachye Ibn Pakuda, in his Chochot Halevovot (Duties of the Heart), explains that humans enter this world surrounded by an abundance of favours.  We breathe, walk, talk and have caring parents. This should make us all so happy and yet it does not. Even when our intelligence matures, we fail to focus on these gifts because we take them for granted.
Moreover, even things that at one point in life made us very happy,
eventually fail to do so. Its human nature to 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 and gain happiness from it.
Wanting more and focusing on what we don’t have is not just a roadblock to happiness, it is also a bridge to and a cause for unhappiness. In this sense, it is a negative and harmful human trait.
In Summary:
a.    We take so much of the good in life for granted because we always had it.
b.   Even for the novel blessings, we adapt to them and they fail to cause us happiness.
c.    We then focus on what we don’t have, which further exacerbates the problem by not allowing us to focus at all on what we do have.
d.   Our desire for more generates negative emotion about our status.
Gratitude is an antidote to taking things for granted, and therefore a key to happiness.
Fortunately, Judaism has a built in system for gratitude.  Catch me next week when we discuss Judaism’s unique approach to thankfulness and appreciation in our lives.
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