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The Pursuit of Happinessfalls

by Frumma Rosenberg-Gottlieb

In the early days of the Chassidic movement, before Chassidim were called Chassidim, we were called di freilicheh, the happy onesChassidus tells us that joy is a necessary precondition for Hashem’s presence to dwell with usThe Rebbe emphasized this repeatedly, often linking the idea with the concept, “Simcha poretz geder” – joy breaks all boundaries. “Serve G-d with joy,” we read in King David’s Psalms – “Ivdu et Hashem B’Simcha.”  We bless each couple under the chupah with gila, rina, ditza and chedva – gladness, jubilation, cheer and delight. 

Since the beginning of time, humankind has searched relentlessly for happiness. And yet, by and large, in our complicated golus we aren’t all that happy.  We may in fact be less satisfied with our lot than ever before.

We know from observing human interactions that people don’t need to encourage others to be something which they already are. “Don’t cry!” is addressed to one who is crying. “Don’t be afraid!” is advice offered to a frightened child. When Moshe said “al tira” to Yehoshua, it was to quell his very real fears. Yirmiyahu, similarly, speaks to us all: “Al tira avdi Yaakov.” Since our Rebbeim and Prophets place so much emphasis on joy and confidence and peace of mind, it follows thatbeing happy and thinking positively are traits we need to work on.  Moreover, happiness is meant to be an unconditional commitment; it is not supposed to depend upon the circumstances of our lives. 

Yet reality too often falls short. Consider the evidence: statistical surveys show, unfortunately, that anti-depressants are the most widely diagnosed drugs in America. 118 million prescriptions were filled in 2005, which constituted a 45% increase above the ten prior years. And the rise continues - not only in the use of Prozac and other such pharmaceuticals, but also in the abuse of drugs and alcohol… not to mention the unmitigated overconsumption of food, clothing, and superficial pleasures that fail, inevitably, to change unhappiness into genuine joy.

Rather than wondering why or attempting to address the causative factors of this sad situation, it would be preferable to focus on the cure. Time is precious; each moment of life is valuable.  Instead of giving power to the negative by dwelling on it, the wise person focuses on what is right and good.

David haMelech presents a fine example.  When David incorporated the obligation to serve G-d with joy into Sefer Tehillim, he was at the time hiding in a cave, exiled from his throne, having barely escaped from the murderous intentions of his power-hungry son. What a rough set of circumstances! And yet David chose this moment to compose a psalm of rejoicing.

But then, David was used to adversity.  He had experienced a childhood that might easily have marred his personality for life. Prior to his conception, his father, Yeshai, had a dream that he would give birth to an exceptional son. Rather than assume that that was a good omen, Yeshai feared the worst, and separated from his wife to prevent conception. His wife had faith, however, and snuck into his chambers in the guise of a concubine. She became pregnant and gave birth to David. Yeshai accused her of adultery, and banished her and the little “mamzer” to the servants’ quarters, where they lived as subjects of derision and shame. One day Samuel, the prophet, showed up to anoint one of Yeshai’s sons as the next king of Israel. He reviewed the first seven young men; none qualified. Samuel turned to Yeshai and inquired, “Is it possible that you have another son that you neglected to bring to me?” The pieces suddenly fit together, and Yeshai, filled with remorse, summoned David from the servants’ quarters to be anointed as the future King. What a childhood!

The challenges didn’t end there. David wrestled with his conscience throughout his life because of his love for Batsheva, the wife of a deceased army officer whom he had guilefully sent out to the front lines of battle. Later, our heroic King experienced pain and disappointment with his own children: his first-born son died; Absalom tried to kill him; and Amnon violated his half-sister, Tamar (David’s daughter by another wife) then mercilessly cast her out and locked the door! 

Although David was a Tzadik, a heroic warrior, and a righteous King, he never found tranquility in this world. Yet David possessed an unshakable faith that allowed him to accept all his trials. We believe that from the loins of David, the man who strove for happiness regardless of his situation, Moshiach will surely come.

Can we emulate David’s unshakeable emunah and acceptance? Our generation seems to have modified the standard characterization of the three basic needs – food, clothing, and shelter – and added a fourth basic need: something or someone to blame.  When we’re not pointing a finger, we’re kvetching and complaining.  It’s like that famous joke about the waitress in the Jewish restaurant. As she walks to the table she inquires, “Is anything all right?

To live an emotionally productive life we need to change that attitude.  “Tracht gut, vet zeit gut,” the Rebbe would often say -think well, and all will be well.  In other words, a positive outlook and an optimistic approach is a key to our well-being.  But how do we accomplish this – particularly if our habitual mindset does not yet reflect this ideal?

The challenge, and the reward, lies in actualizing the mind’s innate ability to rule over the emotions – as the Alter Rebbe emphasizes in Tanya, “hamoach shalit al halev b’toldaso.” To really accomplish this takes work.  To take a positive thought and internalize it until it becomes a sustained feeling of happiness, well-being, and genuine emunah requires effort – but with persistence, Chassidus assures us we can succeed.

The enormous value of working on ourselves to cultivate real happiness is espoused in modern day psychology as well. Contemporary research, as pioneered by Daniel Goleman in his groundbreaking treatise Emotional Intelligence, indicates that emotional intelligence can matter more than IQ. What factors explain why people of high IQ often flounder, while those of modest IQ flourish? The difference according to Goleman lies in the abilities he calls emotional intelligence, which include self-control, zeal and persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself.  

According to Goleman, happiness results in specific biological changes which promote:

  • increased activity in the brain center that
    • inhibits negative feelings
    • increases available energy
    • quiets worrisome thoughts
  • increased sense of restfulness and well being
  • increased readinessand enthusiasm for whatever task is at hand, and
  • increased desire to strive toward a great variety of goals.

What Goleman and the social scientists he cites are realizing is what Chassidus has been saying all along: the mind and the heart go hand in hand.  What brings a good idea into fruition in our emotional lives? The power of daas – focusing our awareness and exercising our minds until positive emotion becomes our everyday reality, regardless of how challenging our outside circumstances may be. Such a state of happiness is among the most significant factors in producing a successful bochur, a well adjusted balabuster or a thriving shaliach.  A high degree of emotional intelligence can be more important than the right connections, or an organized work ethic.

And in response to the question, “Is happiness a natural state of being, something genetic and predetermined? Or is it an attitude that can be learned?” Chassidus answers unequivocally: we can use our minds to cultivate our hearts.

Cognitive therapists and Torah scholars alike tell us that we are able to choose our thoughts – and that through choosing those thoughts that emphasize gratitude and bitachon we are able to arrive at and maintain an emotional state of happiness and joy.  As we have seen, we are commanded by David haMelech in Sefer Tehillim to serve Hashem with Simcha. And this mandate is not dependent on whatever situation we find ourselves in at the moment. The need to serve Hashem with joy is an ongoing obligation, in fact a prerequisite, to attaining the highest quality of life. It isn’t dependent on living in a beautiful home, being healthy or attractive, having attentive children, or depositing large sums of money in the bank. True happiness is developed by thinking positively and acknowledging our gratefulness for the blessings in our lives.

The Rambam (Maimonides), the famous Torah scholar and physician, is an important source of guidance toward this goal.  Are we inclined sometimes to be sad, or angry, or fearful, or ungrateful? The Rambam tells us that the appropriate way to change a negative character trait is often to go to the opposite extreme, thereby cultivating the “middle path.” One who knows himself to be too talkative should strive to maintain silence for periods of his day. One who is introverted should go out of his way to greet colleagues and inquire into their well being. One who tends to be critical or complaining should incorporate a few minutes into his daily dinner conversation to discuss the good that occurred during his day. By pushing ourselves to focus our energies toward the opposite extreme of the spectrum, we attain balance and arrive at a place of moderation. Rabbi Shlomo of Carlin said that while depression is not in itself a sin, it leads to wrongdoing. Acquiring and maintaining a sense of wellbeing, gratitude and joy empowers us to do the right thing, to “Choose Life.”

Gratitude is an attitude we'd all do well to cultivate. Hashem asks us to say “thank you!” at least 100 times a day. This is not because Hashem needs our reinforcement but rather because gratitude is good for us. It leads us to joy. Joy comes from the inside out, and the goal is to consciously choose to focus on, enjoy and be grateful for the simple pleasures that come from the genuine good things in life, such as love, laughter and learning.  

A certain secular psychology professor gave his students an unusual assignment. He asked them each to write a "gratitude letter," a kind of belated thank-you note to someone in their lives. Studies show such letters provide long-lasting mood boosts to the writers. Indeed, the professor reported that after the exercise his students feel happier "100 percent of the time."

The biggest bonus comes from experiencing gratitude habitually, but natural ingrates needn't despair. Simple exercises can give even cynics a short-term mood boost, and once you get started, you find more and more things to be grateful for.  Write a gratitude letter to an often remembered teacher, your spouse, your mother, your bubbe, or a good friend.  Acknowledge in detail the kindnesses of someone you've never properly thanked. If possible read this letter aloud to the person you're thanking – and you will see measurable improvements in your mood. Studies show that happiness levels tend to rise for a full month after such a "gratitude visit", while boredom and other negative feelings go down.

Gratitude can even help businesses to thrive. A study found that customers of a jewelry store who were called and thanked showed a subsequent 70% increase in purchases. In comparison, customers who were thanked and told about a sale showed only a 30% increase in purchases, and customers who were not called at all did not show an increase. Similarly, it has been established that restaurant patrons give bigger tips when their servers write “Thank you” on their checks.

Try this for two weeks: Before you go to bed at night right down two things you are grateful for in a notebook. At the end of two weeks, read them all out loud.  Or get a “gratitude buddy” and make a date to speak every day and tell each other two things you are grateful for. Make the effort to have more kavanna when you make brachas on your food. Think about what your morning brachas mean. Ask your children each night at dinner to share one thing they are grateful for during their day. Create a gratefulness pushke and put in a few coins when you think of something you are thankful for. Take a daily happiness walk (or just close your eyes and get in touch with your breathing) and spend five minutes thanking Hashem for the things he has given you. The world will seem better and you will feel better as well!

Hashem gave us a very clear message.  He said we should live up to our name.  Our name is Yehudim, from the Hebrew word hodaah, whichmeans thanks, or praise.  We are the people who praise, the people who thank. What’s the first thing we’re supposed to say when we wake up in the morning? “Modeh Ani” - thank you, Hashem, for restoring my soul!!  When do we all bow together in the holiest prayer of the day? “Modim anachnu lach,” we gratefully acknowledge that You are our G-d! And when we’re really celebrating, on Yom Tov, we say Hallel - Hodu l’Hashem ki tov- praise G-d because he’s good!

Hatzlacha rabba – think well, and be happy!

Frumma Rosenberg-Gottlieb is an educator, a school improvement specialist, a life coach and a national lecturer. She has served as the principal of the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School of North Miami Beach, the founder of the Jewish Women’s University, and the Director of Chabad House of Pittsburgh. She welcomes your comments at

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