Judaism’s Value of Happiness: Living with Gratitude and Idealism

The weekly reader of the Jewish news might come to believe that Judaism opposes happiness and favors worry, guilt, and conflict. We seem to be so down and obsessed with our problems: anti-Semitism, anti-Israel propaganda, assimilation, intermarriage, scandals, and on and on. But actually, Judaism very much embraces the importance of happiness.

In recent years, much attention has been given to the biological, economical, and philosophical approach to happiness, but what about the religious approach? Can and should the great religious virtues bring us deeper life contentment? The great virtues of gratitude and idealism not only add to the lives of others, but can enrich us with a more happy and fulfilling life.

The great Chassidic Rabbi Nachman famously taught that “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.” When we are happy, we can do everything better, so religious life necessitates that we cultivate happiness when appropriate. When things were going poorly for the Jews 2,500 years ago, the prophet reminded the people of the importance of joy: “Do not mourn or weep. Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8: 9-10).  There is a place for mourning loss but Judaism cherishes the celebration of life.

The rabbis teach that “The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself” (Avot 4:2). Rather than some metaphysical intervention, the great feeling that comes from doing right is itself the reward. Some have suggested that no act is altruistic, since one feels good afterwards. This is not the Jewish approach. What would it say about the religious personality if one did not feel positively after doing a good act? Feeling good about doing right is an important reminder that we are on the right track and is constitutive of the ethical personality. One of the greatest contributions that Judaism makes to the potential of soul actualization is “ivdu et Hashem b’simchah,” that we are to serve G-d in joy. This is what Judaism preaches: happiness must actively be cultivated if we are to thrive in this life. Pessimism and cynicism are vices in Jewish thought.

Psychologists have also found that idealism is correlated with happiness. The Israeli-born Harvard professor of positive psychology, Tal Ben-Shachar, in “Happier” wrote: “Being an idealist is being a realist in the deepest sense—it is being true to our real nature. We are so constituted that we actually need our lives to have meaning. Without a higher purpose, a calling, an ideal, we cannot attain our full potential for happiness… Being an idealist is about having a sense of purpose that encompasses our life as a whole; but for us to be happy, it is not enough to experience our life as meaningful on the general level of the big picture. We need to find meaning on the specific level of our daily existence as well.” To live Jewishly is to live inspired with the optimism that we can build a more just and holy world and with the faith that there is a promising future for all humankind.

Surely, idealism is not all happiness, as living by our ideals entails struggling. Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, explains: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” When we struggle to achieve our ideals, we live a life of meaning. To do this, one not only needs courage but also fellow human beings (family, friends, mentors, spiritual community). For example, a recent study showed that national pride is correlated with happiness.

In addition to struggling to live by our ideals of the future, psychologists teach the importance of gratitude in the present. This is made most clear by the rabbinic teaching: “Who is rich? He who appreciates (or is happy with) his portion” (Avot 4:1). To cultivate this, the rabbis teach that we should make 100 blessings a day (Menachot 42b). These are moments when we step back and reflect upon our good fortune and express gratitude.

Perhaps the most basic event that all humans can feel gratitude for is waking up each morning. There is a Jewish blessing to commemorate this daily miraculous occurrence: “I express my gratitude before You, Living and Eternal King, for You have returned my soul to me with compassion; how great is your faithfulness!” Realizing that each day is a blessing can lead to real inner joy (sipuk nefesh).

Another common time to express gratitude is before and after eating. In the Jewish blessing after meals, the words “v’achalta v’savata uveirachta” (you shall eat, be satisfied, and bless) are recited, teaching that one not only expresses gratitude on eating, but also on the feeling of being full and satisfied. Before we run to fulfill our next desire, we should pause to be full of gratitude and contentment (histapkut).

To be sure, happiness alone cannot be our end point. Toni Morrison, speaking to college graduates, said it best: “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.” While we should strive to live with joy, we should balance this with other life commitments and values.

When we actively cultivate gratitude and idealism, we can become happier individuals better equipped to change the world and live inspired lives committed to doing good. The Jewish people have much to be preoccupied with, but when we infuse joy into our service and commitment we can actualize to the next level and in more sustainable and meaningful ways.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

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