Happiness is a moral obligation

Readers who think I am preoccupied with political issues may find it interesting to learn that I lecture on the subject of happiness more than any other single topic. And, every Friday for the past 12 years, I have devoted an hour of my radio show to this subject.

I do so because I have concluded that the happy make the world better, and the unhappy make the world worse. Therefore, happiness is a moral obligation.

For the first half of my life, like most people, I regarded happiness as essentially a feeling – “I feel happy,” “I feel unhappy.” I regarded the pursuit of happiness as a selfish endeavor.

I was very wrong. Happiness — or to be more precise, a happy disposition — is actually a moral virtue. Whenever I meet an individual with a cheerful disposition, I admire that person. I have come to regard people who maintain cheerful dispositions in the same way I regard those are kind, honest, etc.

If you want to understand why happiness is a moral virtue that we are obliged to pursue, ask anyone raised by an unhappy parent — or who is married to an unhappy spouse, or who has an unhappy child — what that is like.

The unhappy — or those who act unhappy, such as the moody, the chronic complainers, the drama kings and queens — frequently ruin the lives of those around them. They cast a pall over their son or daughter’s childhood, they ruin their marriages, and they can make their parents despondent.

And that’s only the damage they do in the micro realm. In the macro realm, the unhappy often do even more damage. Those who became Nazis or communists were not happy people. Happy Muslims don’t become suicide bombers — the very fact that they want to murder and die in order to be rewarded in the afterlife is a testament to how little joy they experience in this life.

Given, then, how much damage they do, why do the moody and miserable act this way?

One reason is that they believe that they have suffered more than those who act happy.

But this is false. Most of those who walk around with a cheerful disposition have suffered at least as much as have the moody and miserable. There is rarely a correlation between suffering and disposition.

Another is that often they have been rewarded for their chronic complaining and bad moods. This typically begins in childhood, during which the moody child gets more attention than the easygoing child. And it continues into adulthood – the moody are often placated, and others frequently try to “make” the unhappy happy. So why change, when your miserable moods have only been rewarded?

People should regard bad moods in the same way they regard bad breath or bad body odor: Inflicting bad moods on others is just as obnoxious as inflicting bad breath or body odor on others. Just as we try to brush away bad breath and wash away body odor, we should try to brush and wash away bad moods.

A third reason is that we live in the Age of Feelings. Feelings have replaced standards (for example, “How do you feel about it?” has replaced “Is it right or wrong?”), and feelings have been elevated above behavior. The idea that one should not act in accord with one’s feelings, or, heaven forbid, not express one’s feelings is regarded as sinful.

Young people in particular recoil at the thought of acting contrary to how they feel. It is “inauthentic,” they say. But, of course, nice-smelling breath and bodies are also inauthentic. What is authentic about mouthwash or deodorant?

The fact is that we owe it to everyone with whom we come into contact to act in as upbeat a manner as possible. I suspect that more marriages survive a spouse’s infidelity than survive a spouse’s chronic bad moods. Indeed, regularly inflicting bad moods on a spouse should be regarded as a form of spousal abuse.

This rule applies everywhere. As one who flies hundreds of times a year, I can testify to how much more pleasant a flight is when the flight attendant is a cheerful person rather than a dour one. And in the workplace, it is simply vital. The constant good humor of my engineer, Sean McConnell, has had a measurable impact on the quality of my show.

And acting happy not only affects everyone in our lives; it affects us just as much. Our own behavior changes us. As the 12-step programs — perhaps the wisest programs in our society — put it: “Fake it till you make it.” Act happy, and you’ll be happier.

None of this suggests that we should hide our unhappy feelings from our closest friends, one of whom, hopefully, is our spouse. But it does mean that whatever we are feeling, we still need to try to be, or at least to act, happy. That is certainly the message of Judaism, from which I learned this insight. Even during the week following the death of an immediate family member, we are forbidden to mourn when Shabbat comes.

Behavior over feelings is one of Judaism’s greatest teachings.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Exercise is Good for the Soul

Maybe it’s a stereotype, but Jewish people have always been considered smart. Not just by others but by themselves, too. We pride ourselves on making education a priority for our children. We encourage them to study, to go for the extra credit, and we imbue them with the value of education that they will pass on to their own children. But there’s a type of education that we – and many other Americans – have been ignoring, that may have a direct impact on brain power: physical education. According to new research by neuroscientists and educators, physical exercise “may boost brain function, improve mood, and otherwise increase learning,” writes Dolores King for the Boston Globe.

The body/mind connection

Physicians have known for years that depressed people often improve when they exercise. Sometimes that’s all it takes. “It’s helpful to think of the brain as a muscle,” says Dr. John Ratey of Harvard Medical School in an interview with the Boston Globe. “One of the best ways to maximize the brain is through exercise movement. Everybody feels better after exercise. There’s a reason for it.”

That reason, shows research, is that physical activity increases blood flow in the brain, which helps you think better, and also increases the levels of a brain-cell growth hormone. Exercise, points out Ratey, also has a positive effect on mood-altering brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. That’s possibly why depressed people feel better when they exercise.

Missed opportunities

If exercise is so great for the body, mind and soul, then why don’t more schools require it? That’s a question many parents and educators want an answer to. According to the Boston Globe, a 1997 survey by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education showed that only one state, Illinois, mandates daily physical education for students in grades K-12.

Get physical

Here are some ways to encourage your child to be physically active despite the lack of official school encouragement:

1. Support your child’s participation in gym class. When your kid comes home with his or her report card, don’t poo-poo the grade in gym. Take it as seriously as other grades.

2. Many girls try to get out of gym class by getting their parents to write them excuses about menstrual cramps. Don’t do it (unless it’s medically advised by your doctor). Instead, tell your daughters how physical activity helps keep their bodies and minds in shape – and helps to alleviate menstrual cramps if they indeed have them.

3. Work with your school board in reinstating more comprehensive gym programs or after-school physical activities.

4. Encourage, but don’t push, your kid to take up a sport that he or she really likes. Not so much for the winning or the need to excel, but for the sheer joy of movement.

5. Buy your child some fun sports gear or equipment to encourage him to do some physical activity.

And if you’re really smart, you’ll stop preaching to your kid about how good physical activity is for the body and mind – and get out and do some sweating yourself. n

This article reprinted with permission www.jewishfamily.com