November 17, 2018

The Happiness Gene

“What have you done for fun today?” my dad would ask me in a spirited voice. 

My dad loved to have fun.  He found ways to be playful even when he was recovering from quadruple bypass surgery, a massive stroke, and had to re-learn how to speak and walk; he was told that he would never walk again. He had fun even as he struggled to eat with a fork and to see out of eyes that rendered him legally blind.

“For a man in my condition,” he liked to say, “I’m in great condition.”   When I asked my dad if he ever felt down, he’d say, “The thoughts come to me, but I decide not to think them.”

I want to think like my dad.

Last month, I attended a family reunion in Baltimore with over 85 cousins, 65 of whom I had never met, some over the age of 90! (Read more about it here).   Most of the attendees were less than 5’5” in height, yet all were tall of spirit in celebrating life, togetherness, and family.  And although my dad is no longer with us in body, I saw him reflected in the sparkling eyes of my relatives.  They all seemed to possess the Happiness Gene.

A recent study published on the Medical News Today site revealed that over 190 researchers in 17 countries located genetic variants associated with happiness. 

Nature or nurture, I asked myself.  I recall my cousin, Gtty, telling me that in our tradition, we are to thank G-d at least 100 times each day.  Whenever we voice something positive we are to follow it with, “Baruch Hashem,” “thank you G-d.”  Whenever we can, we are to focus on the positive, on beauty, and on gratitude.

“Serve G-d with Joy!” (Psalms 100:2) Rabbi Nachman of Breslov tells us “It’s a mitzvah to be happy!”  My 93-year-old cousin, Fagie, imparts, “Remember, Hashem is always with you in everything you do.  He helps you with everything.  There is only one thing Hashem does not do.  He does not make you sad; only you can make you sad, and only you can fix and change that sadness.” 

There’s a difference between justified sorrow and voluntary suffering.  As parent of a non-verbal son with autism,  I was challenged in the early days to see blessings in my son, even in my son's most challenging times. I was able to appreciate the blessings.  Denial? (as I was often accused.) Or Genetic?   Seeing the abilities within disability has now become my profession and is an actual movement in the field of autism: abilities based intervention, as opposed to the antiquated deficit model.  With other leaders in this field, such as the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan, founder of the Floortime Method, Dr. Barry Prizant, co-founder of the SCERTS method, self-Advocate and international speaker, Stephen Shore and N.Y. Times best selling author, Steve Silberman, can we be so bold as to say that there is a Jewish influence in this movement? 

This year, my theater group, The Miracle Project, will be exploring Happiness through Jewish Humor. Bolstered by generous support from The Los Angeles Jewish Federation, and partnering with the esteemed Walls Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, The Miracle Project will hold classes for older teens and young adults of all abilities who will explore Jewish humor from Chelm to Seinfeld. 

Please join us as an actor, singer, comedian, volunteer, or stage hand and celebrate happiness.  I like to think of it as the 614th mitzvah.

Classes begin November 1st, Tuesdays at 4:45.  To register, go here

For more information contact