One of Judaism’s 613 commandments (mitzvot) is to be happy. But how does one obtain happiness?
At Barnes & Noble one can find 50 different books in which the title promotes that the book will help one have a happier life. I counted! But Judaism does not leave it to the current prescriptions that are in vogue in pop-psychology on how to obtain happiness. So what is Judaism’s prescription?
Let us begin with the verse in the Torah where we are commanded to be happy. "You shall be happy with all the goodness that Hashem, your God, has given you and your household…” (Deuteronomy 26:11).
A rabbinic text that sheds light on this mitzvah is Pirkei Avot (4:1) which asks: "Who is a wealthy person?" And then answers: "He who rejoices with his portion." Thus, a strategy to employ to achieve happiness, to use a colloquial idiom, is to focus on the full half of the glass. In other words, to stop focusing on what one does not have and trying to get those things, but to be appreciative of what one already does have no matter how much or how little.
Today’s self-help books concur with the above and also prescribe having a sense of purpose, especially altruism, for obtaining happiness. Judaism, however, posits a very specific purpose for every Jew.
Most readers have probably seen a painting of Hasidim dancing, but have you ever wondered the impetus for their joy? It is their knowledge of God’s purpose for creating the world and knowledge of their purpose as a Jew vis-à-vis God’s purpose. Applying this wisdom leads one to serving God with love, awe, fear, and happiness. What is this knowledge?
This knowledge is that every mitzvah a Jew does not only improves one’s self, but also improves the world, and doing mitzvot brings the world one step closer to the Messianic Era. In the lingo of the Jewish Mystics, “God desires to have a dwelling place in the lower world.” This means, knowingly working towards fulfilling God’s desire, which is done through doing mitzvot, fosters an incredible sense of pleasure and happiness. Among Hasidim this joy frequently “bubbles over” into singing and dancing because of the emphasis they put on studying, reflecting on, and applying these teachings. (See Tanya, chapters 25-27 for details.)
Judaism relays a third ingredient for obtaining happiness which has to with understanding how God operates in the world.
Judaism teaches that everything that happens to a person is because God orchestrates it to happen—this phenomenon is called Divine Providence--yet at the same time humans have Free Will.
Divine Providence and Free Will occurring simultaneously may seem like a contradiction, but the following analogy explains how this is possible. Imagine a master chess player playing against a novice chess player. The novice chess player has 100% free will as to where s/he moves his/her pieces. However, by how the master chess player arranges his/her pieces, s/he “directs” the novice player to make particular moves. In the analog, God is the master chess player who orchestrates situations and we are the novice chess player.
Furthermore, since God is good, everything God does is good and for our benefit. Therefore, one should not get angry when annoying things occur, such as a when a slow driver gets in front of a person when s/he is in a hurry, or gets a flat tire, etc. Rather, one should be happy about the situation because it is ultimately for one’s benefit. Occasionally in hindsight we are privy to why a something that seemed negative at the time was really for our benefit.
Another example of how Divine Providence manifests in everyday life is if someone is an impatient person God does not help him/her by orchestrating events to avoid circumstances where s/he would probably lose his/her temper. Rather, God arranges more opportunities for him/her to practice his/her patience!
The Sages also taught the converse of this concept which is: when a person loses his temper it is considered as if s/he worshiped an idol (Talmud Nedarim 22b). This is because when one loses his/her temper it demonstrates that for those few seconds s/he did not believe God was running the world at the micro-level. Otherwise s/he would not have lost his/her temper.
An important aspect of the teachings of Divine Providence is God does not give a person a challenge that s/he cannot handle, and every challenge is an opportunity to grow spiritually. Therefore, when a person has a severe challenge such as a major illness, a financial crisis, a family issue, etc., s/he should have the peace of mind that s/he can overcome it, and, of course, will grow from overcoming the challenge.
To summarize, Judaism’s time-tested recipe for obtaining happiness entails: (a) recognizing and appreciating everything God has given a person; (b) knowing that one’s purpose as a Jew is to do God’s will which is concretizsed as mitzvot, and in doing so, this helps bring the world closer to perfection; and (c) keeping in mind that God runs the world at the micro-level, therefore, every seemingly bad thing that happens to a person a person can handle, and, in fact, is actually for one’s benefit. Thus, one should always be happy!