General Topics

Happiness

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At China’s National People’s Congress this year, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that increasing happiness was more important than the GNP. If China really cared about its citizens it would give them more freedom. Guangdong is to change its name to “Happy Guangdong” and officials in China have established “happiness indices”.

If “happiness” in Chinese is the same as “happiness” in English, then it is just another “happy” clappy, fluffy, meaningless expression of a desire to feel good. But what does feeling good amount to? Absence of pain? Or is it some physical state, like sneezing or taking Viagra? When the Beatles sang that “happiness is a warm gun”, whichever interpretation you choose to place on the words, it cannot be any more serious a description than that other cliché that “love is never having to say you’re sorry”.

John Locke in 1693 wrote in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.” But then he failed to explain either what “happiness” was or what “true and solid” meant either!

The United States Declaration of Independence, which was drafted primarily by Thomas Jefferson and was adopted by the Second Congressional Congress on July 4, 1776 declares that:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So what in Heaven’s name is “happiness”? It can’t be simply “pleasure”, because then the state should have no right to stop me walking around in an opium-induced stupor, or running around naked. Are we talking about what a pig rolling around in the dirt feels, or a hippopotamus in the mud? Pleasure cannot be sustained permanently. It is easy to overeat and feel sick, to overindulge and feel deflated or exhausted.

The classical Hebrew word “simcha” is often translated “joy”. We are commanded to “serve God in joy”, to “be joyful on your festivals”. How do you get to be joyful? I guess by enjoying the good things in life. But that is a matter of personal attitude. You cannot legislate for a mental state. You can merely suggest it as a goal to be aspired to. Similarly “happiness”, “ashrei” is not a state of being so much as an appreciation of how fortunate one is. It is something we should aspire to but can never guarantee or legislate for. Anyway there is a fundamental difference between “pleasure” and “joy/happiness”.

Happiness may result from unhappy or unjoyful situations, when we do a good deed or a spiritually beneficial one. When I go to visit a dying congregant, I want to be there in that ghastly hospital, but I am as far from happy or joyful at that moment as you could imagine. Or what if I put my life in jeopardy to save a drowning soul? That too is very “good” thing to do, according to my moral and religious system, but it is hardly a happy experience. Ask any parent if there aren’t moments of pain, anger, and frustration in bringing up children just as there are moments of sheer delight, pride, and excitement. Is there a permanent state of a “happy parent”, even when one may sometimes have to nurse a sick or injured child? What Locke calls “true happiness” surely is something more.

When the rabbis ask, “Who is a wealthy man,” they reply, “Someone joyful, sameach (satisfied), with his life”. Satisfaction too is a state of mind. I have known millionaires who thought they were poor. It seems to me that the aim of human beings should be to do that which is beneficial, valuable, and creative.

Happiness can also come from a conviction that one is on the right path, even if at any moment it is strewn with thorns and thistles. The root word ASHR meaning “happy” also means “validate”. Happiness is having direction, structure, goals, and targets. Such as a religious life, for example, gives.

But who decides what goals and targets are appropriate? What of murderous dictators who are convinced they are right to torture rebels into submission, recantation, or death? Marxists or Maoists who believe human life is dispensable in pursuit of the “end” for society? Maimonides, in his vision of a Messianic Era, defined it simply as removing political coercion and allowing individuals to fulfill their potential–and naturally he saw that potential as including the spiritual, not only the physical .

All religions and political systems agree on vague goals of peace and goodwill, but not on how to achieve them. That is why nowadays in the West we prefer political systems that leave most of private values and private lives up to individuals. My religion requires my sorting out my values and goals for myself, regardless of what political system I live under.

I believe the Festival of Pesach has it right. We think about what freedom means, what it allows us to do, and what our goals are for ourselves. We remember and value others, see examples of different lives, for better and for worse, those free and those oppressed, and we accept the right to be different. But why a Seder Night for this? Humans need a ritual framework to remind them constantly of their values, so that when we lose momentum we are brought back to our ideals.

Happiness and joy are individual emotions. Being happy means appreciating good fortune, not giving up when things go badly. It is like being sensitive. One needs to cultivate it. It is very personal endeavor. Everyone has to imagine that he or she has come out of slavery and now has to make decisions. That is what Pesach is designed to remind us of.

Chag Sameach!

8 thoughts on “Happiness

  1. In your very detailed and thorough examination of the state of happiness you seem to have covered about everything.
    For me however, the one thing happiness is not is a permanent state.
    I believe it is ephemeral, fleeting glimpsed and to be enjoyed briefly, more would be unbearable, a sort of emotional gluttony.
    Anyone aiming to live in a permanent state of happiness is I fear, doomed to disappointment.

  2. Alain De Bouton described in his book "The Consolations of Philosophy" what Socrates determined as being the foundations of a happy life. Basically, enough money to get by, and a close circle of friends with which to eat and shoot the breeze with. Translated into our culture, would that would those requirements be met by a regular Shabbat lunch, I wonder?!

    One of the first things I learned back in my university course (economics) was the limitations of GDP as a measure of economic wealth and the limitations of economic wealth as a proxy for happiness. Dealing with the first of these is relatively easy. An example of a typical problem is that in, say, Sweden, they spend more money on heating, than they do in Italy. In both countries, the minimum temperature of the houses will be similar, but in Sweden they have to spend money to make it so. That element of Sweden's economic activity which comes from keeping those houses warm doesn't represent any relative difference in living standards so this element of the measured economic wealth should be disregarded as far as happiness is concered. Economists have devised various other measures such as the Measure of Economic Wealth, designed to take care of problems such as this.

    I suspect the Chinese want to use these kind of indices for their targets, rather than the next step, which is trying to measure happiness, which is always going to be ephemeral at best.

    I'm not sure I explained that very well, but it's basic economics, so pick up a textbook if you want more!

  3. You make happiness sound rather buttock-clenchingly contrived!

    I think quite simply that there are differences between the concepts (which don't really interest me, I'm a simple soul)and realities of happiness, contentment and joy (which do interest me), and the balances in which they appear in our lives, at different times and for different reasons.

    Whether I have striven to achieve a certain state, or whether I just get up in the morning and feel good matters not. Any combination is fine by me, thank you very much. Being alive is a great starting point. But I'm not muchly keen on over-intellectualising them!

    And I will never learn to be happy during those periods when my central heating pump has broken down again. Like now!!

    Hazel E (in public for a change)

  4. PGrGr:

    Thank you for that fascinating post. Thats precisely why I get so much 'pleasure' from doing these blogs, to get feedback like that. It might not necessarily make me a 'happy' man because I am that anyway, but it certainly just made life more enjoyable!!!
    Happy Pesach.

  5. Hazel:
    Isnt that precisely my point that fuzzy wuzzy 'happiness' is pretty meaningless?
    At least be happy your central heating lasted through the winter and that other pump of yours is still working fine!!
    I'll drink a cup to you tonight!
    J

  6. There's nothing fuzzy wuzzy or meaningless about me in my regular good spirits!
    Talking of which, I'll drink a cup to you too, but could you possibly send a set of
    spanners round?!

    Hz

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