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HOW TO ACHIEVE HAPPINESS

How do we achieve happiness? Different opinions in the Talmud offer a variety of answers. But what is missing from the list teaches the most important lesson.

The Talmud offers multiple explanations of the verse in Mishlei (Prov. 15:15): “All the days of a poor man are bad, but a good-hearted person has a continual feast.” In addition to the placement of this verse in Mishlei, the lack of parallel between a poor man and a good-hearted person raise the possibility that the verse is not intended literally. The Talmud interprets it as an ethical statement about what brings true joy.

1. The Joy of Torah

Rav suggests that the two halves of the verse discuss different types of learning Torah. According to one opinion, learning Talmud (i.e. discussions with conclusions) brings joy and learning Mishnah (i.e. primary sources) is inconclusive and therefore unsatisfying. According to Rava, the roles are reversed and Mishnah, which is more straightforward, brings joy while the complexities of the Talmud make for difficulty. Either way, the key to happiness is learning Torah in the proper way, perhaps the method that suits you best. Note that learning the wrong subject can make you miserable. I know many yeshiva high school students who understand this.

2. Marriage

Rabbi Chanina understands the verse to be referring to marriage. A man with a good wife is happy and with a bad wife is miserable. The key to happiness is a successful marriage. Companionship, growth and mutual support bring joy to life.

3. Attitude

Rabbi Yannai interprets the poor man of the verse as someone sensitive, easily irritated (istenis). He is constantly troubled by life. However, someone more easy-going and laid back is always happy. The key to a good life is a positive attitude.

4. Keep Some for Yourself

Rabbi Yochanan offers a surprising interpretation. A merciful person is miserable, presumably someone who is so giving that he has nothing left for himself or his family. A cruel person is happy. Clearly, Rabbi Yochanan is speaking in relative terms. Limitless kindness is too much and ends up as cruelty. A giving person has to know when to stop giving.

5. Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi says that someone with a petty nature (da’ato ketzarah) is unhappy while someone with a contented nature (da’ato rechavah) is happy. This is somewhat ambiguous and Rashi offers two explanations. According to one, the unhappy person is someone who worries about his and his friends’ troubles. All that worrying makes a man miserable, while someone with a more carefree attitude is happy. According to the second interpretation, an angry person is unhappy, in contrast to a calm person. The first interpretation sees the key to happiness in freeing oneself from worry. The second believes happiness comes from serenity.

In reviewing these opinions, we find something very important missing. Five possibilities are proposed:

1. Torah (Intellectual)

2. Marriage

3. Sensitivity (Personal Attitude)

4. Overly Merciful (Interpersonal Attitude)

5. Worriedness (Personal Attitude)

or Anger (Interpersonal Attitude)

Missing from this list is God. If worry about the future causes misery, as in the last view according to the first interpretation, shouldn’t the solution be trust in God (bitachon)? If a bad marriage causes sadness, shouldn’t prayer to God for a better marriage be the answer? Isn’t the very notion of a good life without God as its basis a profoundly secular worldview? Even the first interpretation that places Torah at the center seems to view it as an academic subject. That is not a God-centered approach.

I suggest that a life centered around God is not necessarily expected to produce a happy life. It is a life full of purpose; a proper usage of the few talents and few years we are given. But religion is not a tool to solve the problem of sadness. There are great and holy people who, due to no fault of their own, are surrounded by difficulty. God does not always mend the bereaved heart or heal the crippled.

Our jobs in life are to make the most of our circumstances, which may be wonderful or miserable or somewhere in between. A pleasant attitude and positive demeanor can improve our situations. But ultimately, happiness is beside the point. We were not created to be happy.

Suggesting that happiness is the true goal in life leads to many victims. A righteous woman with an unpleasant (but not abusive) husband would be deemed a failure, or maybe even convinced to end her marriage in search of happiness. Those who are physically, mentally or even politically incapable of reaching their dreams may be unhappy but they need not be considered failures. Happiness is not the goal. If it were, sacrifice for others would not be valued unless it brings happiness to the person making the sacrifice.

Does prayer or faith make you happier? Maybe. Regardless, it is the right path for you to take.