The Jewish Meaning of Happiness
Happy. It's often a response [I just want them to be happy] to the question "What do you want for your children?"
Being happy is what our country wants for us too. From the Declaration of Independence: "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Okay, so let's parse this out a bit. The 'pursuit' of happiness infers that happiness is something to work towards. It's a goal, right?
What our culture 'teaches' us
This is reinforced in subtle and more obvious ways in our culture. If we think that true happiness is a state of mind that we are looking to inhabit, how can one acquire it? Can a person even 'get happy"? Our cultural milieu tells us we can, by the acquisition of things: more, newer, better....Plus we can acquire little pieces of glamour and luxury by owning 'branded' items that allow us to feel just a little bit special.
The advertising industry admits this: “...Happiness is the most evoked emotion used in ads by brands and advertisers. In many cases, happiness is the key motivator for "purchase intent, discovery and shareability" [from a study in 2018]. Don Draper (a character from the drama Madmen) said it much more succinctly: “advertising is based on one thing – happiness”.
Just think about the explosion of social media platforms, what version of happiness is predominantly represented there? How many posts go beyond the "Try this, buy this, do this, get this"? [okay, so maybe it's more like "I tried this, bought this, did this, went here...but the implication is 'this is what I value since I'm sharing it with you'].
So, where does Judaism stand on this? Is happiness in life viewed as a goal? If so, then is it a mitzvah (a commandment)? A driving force? Is attaining happiness what our sources say we should be headed for? If so, then what is the path toward that end?
For the sake of your reading time, I will (over) simplify how Judaism views happiness. Meaning that, for example, I will not explore or offer techniques here, nor grapple with the bigger question of how to achieve a true state of happiness in the midst of a difficult (and often suffering) world.
Judaism has no formal commandment to 'be happy'. In our tradition, plenty of words describe the emotional state of happy. Just a few are gila, rina, nitza, hedva, sasson, simcha, oneg, tza'hala...and more! Amazing! Hebrew is such a sparse language yet there are so many words for a positive state of mind. What does that say about an approach to life?
But it would be deceiving to think that just because there are lot of names for something, it represents a goal. In Judaism, the goal for our lives is more about attaining a sense of 'completeness', described as wholeness, or in Hebrew, shleymut. Shleymut comes from the same three-letter root word Shin - Lamed - Mem (ש - ל - ם) as Shalom, peace.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz says that simcha (joy, happiness) is not to be confused with momentary pleasures, but instead is a deeper feeling, an "experience of the soul doing what it should be doing". The feeling comes, paradoxically, after a difficult and labored process is undertaken and being a part of that brings joy. Think of the meaningful things in life that require effort, birthing a child, learning a skill, accomplishing a goal...it is the journey that is aligned with your purpose that sparks true happiness. It is when your soul sings.
The feeling of moving closer to your goal brings happiness. You're engaging in an activity that you know will bring you to a different place than where you are. Your knowledge that your efforts will bring you to the destination, to the end goal, brings the sublime experience of happiness. Going from one state of being to another will change you.
And if your actions are aligned with your purpose, the feeling is absolutely delicious and can be described as a sense of shleymut. Within this experience of wholeness, you will be elevating your soul to a higher level of awareness, of appreciation, of sacredness. It is a soul-lifting experience.
So, the question is, what are you doing that makes your neshama (soul) play its melody? Then, dwell in that space for as long as you can.
My appreciation to Rabbi Akiva Tatz for his insights related to this subject.