A weekend's ordinary joys

Tal Ben-Shahar on cultivating happiness

We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire. Therefore, rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, "How can I become happier?" This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point.

That's author Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. Intriguingly, this book is the homework for this week's Rabbis Without Borders Fellows meeting. When our cohort of rabbis meets for the final time, we're going to be talking about happiness. I've written before about cultivating joy, but happiness and joy aren't quite the same. This book is the first real reading I've done in the field of hedonics.

What rituals would make you happier? What would you like to introduce to your life?

...In research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal -- writing down at least five things for which they were grateful -- enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being.

Each night before going to sleep, write down at least five things that made or make you happy -- things for which you are grateful...

82When I reached this section, in one of the early chapters, I felt a zing of recognition. Gratitude in each day -- articulating gratitude for the day's blessings -- these are among the most central spiritual practices of my tradition. When I say the modah ani each morning in the shower; when I pray the morning blessings (in either the traditional or alternative form); when I lie in bed at night and silently thank God for my home, my spouse, my child, my family and friends, my meaningful work; when I ask our son at the dinner table what was his favorite thing that happened that day -- these are daily gratitude practices. As far as I'm concerned, Ben-Shahar's right on.

This book does a nice job of balancing citations and references with actual practices for cultivating practices. Among the practices, Ben-Shahar suggests meditation, along with exercises such as mapping one's life (how do I actually spend my time) and creating an integrity mirror (a list of the things which are most meaningful and pleasurable to me, annotated with how much time I actually spend on each of these things each month.) He draws both on Freud (who argued that we are fundamentally driven by the need for pleasure) and on Victor Frankl (who argued that we are motivated by a will to meaning, and that striving to find / make meaning in life is the primary motivating force of human life.) He writes:

While the happy person experiences highs and lows, his overall state of being is positive. Most of the time he is propelled by positive emotions such as joy and affection rather than negative ones such as anger and guilt. Pleasure is the rule; pain, the exception. To be happy, we have to feel that, on the whole, whatever sorrows, trials, and tribulations we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive.

Whatever sorrows we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive. Yes; I resemble that remark. This is more or less my base state; anything other than this is a deviation, for me. (For instance, those months of postpartum depression early in my journey into motherhood.) On the whole, I operate from a place of good will and good feeling, rather than the opposite. Is this why I feel pretty happy, most of the time? Or do I generally feel happy because I'm operating from a place of good will and good feeling? (Or am I able to operate from that place of good will and good feeling because I'm generally happy?) I'm not sure which way the arrow of causality points, and I'm aware that privilege plays into my ability to feel this way (I don't have to deal, e.g., with being short on spoons.) Regardless, I'm grateful to fit Ben-Shahar's description of someone who's happy.

"The ultimate currency for a human being is happiness," argues Ben-Shahar. "While we are accumulating material wealth, we are nearing bankruptcy in the currency that truly matters." I might have framed that in terms of meaning rather than happiness -- while we're accumulating material wealth (or trying to, anyway), we often run the risk of prioritizing other things over connecting with the source of meaning in our lives -- but I'm open to his assertion that happiness is an ultimate human currency.

He praises the importance of setting goals (striving toward them, he says, is more important than meeting them) and, tongue-in-cheek, nudges us to think in terms of life-lines instead of deadlines. I've been immersing in some mussar texts recently, and it's interesting for me to juxtapose Ben-Shahar's assertion that happiness is the ultimate currency with the mussar ideals of balance, moderation, connection with God, and (in R' Ira Stone's language) "staying awake." I'm not sure I know how to integrate these two approaches yet; I'm hoping that this week's RWB conversations will go there.

He spends a while on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on "flow," that state when one is so at-one with an experience that action and awareness are merged. (See Csikszentmihalyi's TED talk on flow.) And Ben-Shahar argues that if we can learn to see our education and our jobs as privileges, rather than as duties, we may experience those kinds of work in a different way. Reading that, my first thought is: holy wow, I could say the same thing about religious practice. If people saw being part of a religious community (coming to synagogue for prayer, coming to make a minyan so others can say kaddish, observing the holidays, educating their children) as precious privileges rather than as duties, how would that change their experience of doing all of those things?

Ben-Shahar cites Abraham Maslow's dictum that "The most beautiful fate, the most wonderful good fortune that can happen to any human being, is to be paid for doing that which he passionately loves to do." (As a rabbi and a writer fortunate enough to be able to do both of these things and to earn a living, I wholeheartedly agree.) And then he says:

Happiness is not merely contingent on what we do or where we are but on what we choose to perceive.

That's a short quote; I ordinarily wouldn't put something so brief into blockquotes, but I wanted to highlight it because I find it so powerful. Happiness is not merely contingent on what we do or where we are -- or what we don't do, or where we manage not to be. Happiness is contingent on what we choose to perceive. This rings true for me, though I would frame it slightly differently. Depending on how I'm feeling and what tools and lenses I'm able to bring to a challenging situation, I'll either experience it as manageable, or as a disaster; as funny, or as unbearable; as exasperating but charming, or as dreadful. So much of my experience of happiness or unhappiness has to do with where I'm at, emotionally and spiritually. It's about what I choose to perceive, and about how skillful I am at maintaining perspective and keeping my focus where I want it to be.

Many people believe that the key to a successful relationship is finding the right partner. In fact, however, the most important and challenging component of a happy relationship is not finding the one right person -- I do not believe that there is just one right person for each of us -- but rather cultivating the one chosen relationship.

Here once again, I agree with his assessment -- and also find myself wanting to apply his metric to spiritual life and religious practice, too. It's possible to spend a lot of time searching for "the right synagogue" (or church or mosque or Zen Center, etc), and I recognize the value in that discernment process. But religious communities aren't perfect. There's always going to be someone who drives you nuts, or a program you think could have been better, or something that doesn't quite meet your expectations. The most important (and challenging) thing is to cultivate that chosen relationship -- to commit to being part of that community, and to invest yourself in helping the community thrive and grow.

Ben-Shahar cites Howard Thurman: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive." Once again, I can't help reading this through the lens of my work as a rabbi. It's arguable that the question isn't what this synagogue, or what this community, or what the broader Jewish community, most needs. We should be asking, rather, what work, what practices, what projects, what passions will make people most come alive? The world needs our aliveness. And if doing something makes us feel more alive, then we'll keep doing it. That's a better motivation than "[the synagogue | the community | whoever] needs you to do it, so you should feel guilty if you don't."

Later in the book, Ben-Shahar writes:

Meaningful and pleasurable activities can function like a candle in a dark room -- and just as it takes a small flame or two to light up an entire physical space, one or two happy experiences during an otherwise uninspiring period can transform our general state. I call these brief but transforming experiences happiness boosters -- activities, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, that provide us with both meaning and pleasure, both future and present benefit.

For many years, going on retreat with my Jewish Renewal community has certainly functioned for me in that way. (That's part of why I can't wait for the ALEPH Kallah this summer.) On a micro-scale, davening -- connecting with God, with music, and with community in prayer -- functions in that way for me. Spending a few hours immersed in creative work functions in that way for me. Cuddling with my son at the end of the day, savoring a delicious meal with good friends -- these function in this way for me. What are the candles which light up your life, the happiness boosters which enliven you?

Ben-Shahar writes about cultivating a sense of inherent worthiness -- understanding that it is right and good for us to accept the blessings of happiness. He suggests a meditation called "Advice from your inner sage" which is a very close variation on the theme of the inner sage / inner elder meditation I was taught to experience and to lead during my training as a spiritual director.

There's a lot of good stuff in this book. These are the bits with which I resonated most; another reader might pull out an entirely different set of quotations and ideas. But this is some of what I found most compelling. I'm looking forward to discussing it with my colleagues in a few days. Here's one last quote:

When the questions that guide our life are about finding more meaning and pleasure (happiness perception) rather than about how we can acquire more money and more possessions (material perception), we are much more likely to derive benefit from the journey as well as from the destination.

Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so!



An interesting post to read in juxtaposition with this one is my husband Ethan's post Daniel Gilbert on Why It's So Hard to Know What Makes Us Happy, posted back in 2009 but still I think quite relevant and interesting.