Happiness

The Jewish Humanist, March 1987

The pursuit of happiness will be the theme of our Temple retreat this year.

While the Declaration of Independence guarantees us the right to happiness, it does not tell us what it is. Nor does it tell us how to get it. We generally agree that happiness is something everybody wants. But we are not sure that everybody wants the same thing.

So what is happiness?

Before we can answer the question we have to confront certain realities about happiness.

  1. If we concentrate too hard on happiness it generally goes away. People who worry constantly about whether they are happy or not rarely are. Happy people do not spend a lot of time thinking about happiness. They are absorbed in compelling projects, work or leisure, that do not allow much time for introspection. When happiness becomes the goal of life, it is rarely achievable. Only when we pursue other more specific goals does happiness emerge as an unintended consequence. The most joyous people I know do not choose to talk about joy. Like the micro-particles of physics it changes, or even disappears, when you look at it too hard.
  2. Getting away from problems does not make us happy. It is an illusion to imagine that it is possible to achieve a problem-free life When one set of challenges goes away another replaces it. Even retirement from work or the departure of children is no guarantee that happiness is around the corner. Uselessness and boredom are often worse than conventional stress. They make us focus on all the minor negative things in our lives we never notice when we are busy. Many of the happiest people I know are overscheduled and overcommitted. They simply love what they are doing, even though what they are doing gives them stress and anxiety. Life in heaven, in the end, may be more taxing than life on earth.
  3. Pain is part of happiness. The hedonism of immediate gratification; is no path to lasting pleasure. If we need our “fix” now and are unwilling to wait for later, we are pursuing self-destruction. Almost all things worthwhile require the postponement of pleasure and sometimes even the endurance of pain. Education, sport skills and Successful parenting take time. They often also involve painful testing, wasting and failure. If we are afraid to risk pain, we shall never be happy. Our lives will consist of momentary pleasures that are tied together by depression.
  4. Small things in life can be important. There is a chemistry to life which reveals itself in the realities of human relations. Certain people attract us and we do not know why. Certain people annoy us and we can find no important reason to explain our response. Certain personalities make us feel good. Certain personalities, with no apparent defect, make us feel rotten. We look for the grand reasons why we should choose one person over another. But often the small things make the difference. A sense of humor, a willingness to listen, a disposition to be kind-each little characteristic embarrassingly trivial determines our choice. Out siders often wonder what we see in the people we like and love. But outsiders are looking for the big reasons and cannot see what makes us happy.
  5. Life needs variety. It is so easy to become obsessed with the things we need and do not have that we imagine that one and only one thing will give us happiness. If only we found a lover, if only we can have a child, if only we can secure interesting work, if only we can live in a warm place – then everything will be marvelous. But no lover alone can bring us happiness, nor can any child, job or climate. People who try to put their happiness eggs in only one basket find that the basket is too small. Long-run pleasure needs variety. It requires love – but not all the time. It asks for work – but not every hour. It revels in leisure – but not day after day.
  6. What other people think of us does make a difference. So many of us imagine that what counts in our life is what we think of ourselves that we rebel against pleasing others. We maintain that if we say to ourselves that we are worthwhile that we will be. But self-esteem does not come from self-congratulations. It starts with our ability to aim the approval of the people we love and respect. Since we are social beings, we are molded as much by others as by ourselves. The hostility of others is not incompatible with happiness, so long as the people we admire standby our side. To go through life, never willing to please, arrogantly indifferent to the demands of parents, friends and teachers is no sign of self-esteem. It is certainly no path to long-run fulfilment.
  7. Winning is preferable to losing. So much current advice focuses on the virtue of trying that the consequences of trying are largely ignored. Boldness and persistence are not enough for happiness. If we try for goals we cannot achieve, if we pursue people who always reject us, if we strive for work Our talents do not fit, then relentless failure and rejection will depress us. It is simply no fun to lose always, no matter how thrilling the effort. In the end, happy people choose goals their skills can realize. They may lose from time to time. But they do not arrange to lose always. They reach out to try things they have never tried before, but never so far as to be pretentious. There is a distinction between good-humored adventure and “suicide.”
  8. The world is a little bit crazy. Unhappy people always expect the world to be orderly and fair. They do not like surprise and resent imperfection. In the end, they stop playing the game of life and spend most of their time complaining about the rules of the game. Because they expect the world to be sane they go crazy. Happy people know that the world is disorderly and unfair. They expect surprise and do not insist on perfection. In the end they prefer to play an imperfect game to playing no game at all. Because they see the world as “nuts,” they stay sane.

So what is happiness?

Happiness is an enthusiasm for life, an eagerness to solve problems, a confidence in our strength to deal with reality, even when that reality is less than we want it to be.