Recently I’ve seen a lot written about happiness. Happiness is a very difficult concept to quantify, and historians debate whether or not we, with all our creature comforts, are really any happier than our predecessors who seemingly lived more difficult lives. Is there a Jewish definition to happiness?
I recently saw a fascinating discussion on happiness in the groundbreaking work “Sapiens” by Israeli author Y.N. Harari (pp. 380-385). (This work gained him an invitation to the White House by then-President Obama.)
It was thought by scientists that happiness is a function of material factors such as health, diet and wealth. But many philosophers have concluded that social, ethical and spiritual factors have at least as great an impact on happiness as material conditions. Perhaps people in modern affluent societies suffer greatly from alienation and meaninglessness despite their prosperity. And perhaps our less well-to-do ancestors found much contentment in community, religion and a bond with nature.
The book cites psychologists and biologists who struggle to find a cogent definition for happiness. The generally accepted definition is “subjective well-being.” Happiness, according to this view, is something I feel inside myself, a sense of either immediate pleasure or long-term contentment with the way my life is going. This is a difficult thing to measure from the outside and to assess how happy people are in comparison to another person or group during a different time period. One can use questionnaires, but they are largely subjective.
The author concludes that happiness is a function of one’s expectations. Members of a modern, affluent society aren’t necessarily happier than medieval peasants who had far, far less, because their expectations were also far less. If one meets his or her expectations, little as they may be, then that individual could be happy with their lot and their life. On the other hand, if one has very high expectations, although they may have worlds more possessions and things in their life than the one expecting very little, they will likely be less content and happy with their life than the one with a sparse lifestyle.
Interestingly, Harari’s conclusion is remarkably in line with Torah thought, despite his coming from a strongly atheistic background and scientific research. That being said, there is a profound difference, as we shall see.
The Mishna teaches, “Who is a rich man? One who is happy with his lot” (Avos 4:1). Here we see that happiness is not something quantifiable or that has a concrete measure; rather, it’s an individual state of being which depends upon being “happy with his lot.”
The profound difference, however, lies in what is the source of one’s expectations. According to Harari, those expectations depend upon the condition of the generation within which one lives and various life circumstances which may raise or lower those expectations. There is, of course, truth to this.
Jewishly, however, one who is steeped in proper Jewish values and beliefs is “happy with his lot” simply because that is the “lot” which was allotted to him or her by G-d.
Our belief is that G-d knows what is best for us and if the hand we are holding is the hand which was dealt to us by our loving Creator, we are happy with it as a gift from the Al-mighty.
The final commandment of the Ten is “Thou shall not covet the possessions of your neighbor,” because we believe that what our neighbor has is best for him, and what I have is best for me.
I have seen holy people who had nearly nothing but were far more joyous than the wealthiest people I know. As my own rabbi once joyously said to a petitioner, “It’s true that I have nothing, but I am missing nothing!”
This is an important thought as we approach Rosh Hashanah and think about what we want in our lives and what to ask for. It’s a time to reflect upon what’s truly important in our lives!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.