By Erica Brown
Director for Adult Education, Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning
By my count, the concordance, the guide to biblical words, lists the appearance of the term “simcha” – only one of many biblical words for joy – 269 times. Book after biblical book includes the notion of happiness. So often when we think of Judaism, our focus is on persecution or despair, crisis or theological density. It’s good to know that the Bible makes lots of room for happiness. It positively demands it in any number of situations.
In one of our classes, we deal with Jewish joy as a subject. Participants fill out some written, personal and reflective questions to begin our time together. The first question is “When you think of Judaism do you think about suffering or joy?” It’s a fair question. I invite you to consider your own answer. In the class, we always have a range. Some people associate Judaism, particularly Jewish history, with a litany of tragedies that make happiness feel distant. Others experience Shabbat meals, Jewish weddings, holidays and the emphasis on family as pure joy. Most people write down both, even though that’s not a listed option. Our suffering is part of our history, and it can make our joy more intense.
The Bible is an ancient text that discusses happiness, but the conversation never stopped there. Today there seem to be more books (and medications) on the market to help us be happier. One of them is a relatively new book called Happier. Professor Tal Ben-Shahar, its author, runs one of Harvard’s most successful classes. He attracts 1,400 students a semester, about 20% of all Harvard graduates. What’s his subject? Happiness. Who knew that along with organic chemistry, intro to English literature of the 16th century and calculus, universities now offer students a chance to think about happiness. So what does this Israeli professor think about happiness?
In the school of positive psychology, Professor Ben Shahar believes that to be truly happy you need both present benefit and future benefit. If you live only for the present, the hedonist model, you may be happy now but miserable later. That cake spent a minute on your lips and possibly weeks on your hips. You thought you were happy eating it, and maybe you really were. But the after-effects are rarely worth it.
People who live only for the future and neglect their current happiness are labeled in this model as those in the rat race. They work hard and suffer in the present, aiming for future benefits that also seem far away. They stay late in the office night after night, missing their families for the security of having a retirement fund that allows them to travel the world one day. Today’s economic crisis shed a different light on this thinking for many people who lost retirement savings and decided to enjoy themselves more today.
Ben-Shahar concludes that for happiness to be authentic and long-lasting it needs to come with a sense of purpose over time: “We need the experience of meaning and the experience of positive emotions; we need present and future benefit.” Leading an ethical life and one of meaning is not only a good idea from a moral standpoint; it is also a key to experiencing deep joy.
Recently, we welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar with Purim as its centerpiece, made famous for the Talmudic aphorism that “When Adar arrives we increase our joy.” If happiness is about what’s good for us now and what’s good for us later, what are you doing to make this month even happier?
Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and the Scholar-in-Residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is also an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University, was a Jerusalem Fellow and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. She is the author of “Inspired Jewish Leadership” and “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood.”
The Partnership is hosting a conference called Routes: Exploring Jewish Together. It will be held from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday March 15 at George Washington University. Featured panelists include “On Faith” co-moderator Sally Quinn, NBC’s David Gregory and Middle East policy expert David Makovsky.