The pursuit of happiness

I’m not sure why, but for the past few weeks, I have received numerous invitations via social media to enroll in a variety of courses through the Happiness Studies Academy. The academy, founded and directed by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, is at the forefront of the happiness revolution and aims to educate leaders who are dedicated to creating happier personal and interpersonal relationships. The specific course that pops up continuously is the certificate in happiness studies which teaches participants to help others, be it family members, friends or colleagues to lead a happier, more meaningful life. I have not enrolled…yet, but this did lead me on a quest, in fact, I have just completed my first week of a course titled The Science of Well-being through Yale University as a result. The course reveals misconceptions about happiness, annoying features of the mind that lead us to think the way we do, and the research that can help us change. After all, who does not want to live a happier more meaningful life.

Israeli born Tal Ben Shahar is a best-selling author and world-renowned lecturer. At 17, he was already the Israeli national squash champion, and he moved to the UK to continue his climb through the world rankings. No one noticed the knot in his stomach that never went away during the most crucial points in the most crucial games. Tal was extremely good at squash and he found it meaningful, two factors that any of us would consider a worthwhile pursuit. Yet, despite this, Tal was unhappy. It was his mission to overcome this personal challenge which set him on his journey to pursue true happiness.

He taught two of the largest classes in Harvard’s University history, Positive Psychology and the Psychology of Leadership. Today, Tal consults, writes and lectures on resilience, happiness, ethics, self-esteem and mindfulness.

In an interview conducted in 2015, Tal was asked what the secrets were to finding happiness. His response focused on the following key points:

  1. We are only human

This means we have to accept emotions such as fear, sadness and anxiety. By rejecting such emotions, we become frustrated and stressed. Ours is a culture of pleasure and therefore when we experience discomfort, we take it to indicate that something must be wrong with us. The truth is there would be something wrong with us if we did not experience sadness or anxiety at times. When we accept our feelings and give ourselves permission to be human and experience painful emotions, we can address these feelings, deal with them and learn how to cope. By doing this, we also open ourselves up to feeling positive emotions as well.

2. Use of language

If we phrase questions in a positive light, we begin to adopt a more positive outlook. Too often we frame questions in a negative manner or want to know what’s wrong. How often do we ask what’s going well? By starting out with what is working or analysing the strengths in people, there is more likelihood of success. After establishing what is working, we can then work out how to deal with those things that are not working as well. This approach can be applied to individuals and organisations.

3. Importance of appreciation

To appreciate something means to be grateful for it and to recognise that it has some value. Unfortunately, for many of us, the first time we really appreciate something is when we no longer have it. The secret is to stop and think about what and who is important in our lives and be grateful for these. When we express gratitude, the value of those things closest to us appreciates and thus begins a positive cycle of appreciation.

4. Mind and body

Happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind. We know that there is a close connection between our minds and bodies, between the physical and the spiritual. What we do (or don’t do) with our bodies has a significant impact on our minds. Regular exercise, adequate sleep and healthy eating habits contribute to a healthy body and a healthy mind.

Speaking of a healthy spiritual self, the portion we read this week, Shelach provides us with some insight into achieving happiness. The portion begins with Moses sending scouts to spy on the land of Israel. Even though the land was flowing with milk and honey, the people still rejected it, “It is better for us to return to Egypt” (Bemidbar 14:3).  When G-d grants their wish and tells them they won’t be entering Israel, they cry out, “we want to go up to the land” (14:40). It seems they are never happy with what they have, always wanting what they don’t have. Those of us who have raised children might be familiar with this experience. The portion concludes with the third paragraph of the Shema, providing us with an antidote to the mentality of the spies. The paragraph tells us, “Lo taturu acharei levavchem ve’acharei eineichem” – “Do not follow after your hearts and after your eyes” (15:39). The famous commentator Rashi notes that “the heart and the eyes are the spies of the body.” It is the heart and the eyes that betray the body because they have the power to divert each of us whenever we desire something for which we have no need.

Our Sages articulate this very idea in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). In responding to Ben Zoma’s question, “who is wealthy?”, the Mishnah states, “The individual who is happy with his/her portion” (4:1). Wealth is not determined by our bank accounts or by the size of our houses. It is defined by our satisfaction with what we have and all the blessings that come with this. If we can begin to adopt this mindset, we are already on our way to a happier life.

What does make us happy is our outlook or approach to life. In other words, happiness doesn’t happen to us. The good news is that happiness is a choice. So, choose to give to others, help them in any way you can. Acknowledge and appreciate all that is good in your life. Focus on what is going well for you and finally, always, always choose to be happy first and let only good things flow from this point forward.

ronnengraumanAbout the author

Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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