The Jewish Secret to Happiness
Okay, there may be more than one.
This week in The Great Jewish Journey, I attended a class at Manhattan Jewish Experience on happiness & the Torah, and found it pleasantly more practical than I expected it to be, so this post is inspired by that class.
We all want to be happy, especially at the beginning of the new year when we want to start our year off right with a “clean slate.” So what’s the secret? It turns out there’s a ton, and luckily, Judaism incorporates all of them in its practice! Read more in detail about each, and then scroll down for a list to check in with yourself to see how often you’re doing these things.
First, it is scientifically proven that the act of giving boosts happy hormones. Well it’s a good thing that tzedakah, the moral obligation to give charity, is not merely a suggestion in Judaism, but is a central principal. So is chesed, or kindness, towards another person.
“If a poor man comes to you in the morning, give him alms, and if in the evening, give him again!” - Genesis, Bereshit
Another contributor to life satisfaction is community, particularly with family. Judaism is huge on community! It’s why we go to shul. It’s why so many of our holidays involve sitting around a table eating. It’s why the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, is not said alone, to let the mourner know they are supported by their community. Speaking of community… ever heard of Shabbat? 25 hours of being with your family and not having electronics to distract you? That could be your personal hell, or it could be your saving grace. You never know until you try.
Being in nature has many positive effects on our mental wellbeing, from decreasing depression and stress to increasing creativity and focus. Shabbat often involves an outdoor stroll with our loved ones (Nature AND community? Wow it’s like Shabbat is good for our mental health or something). Also have you ever been to Israel? The sun-drenched dips and peaks of the Judaean Desert. The salty sapphire weightlessness of the Dead Sea. The lush rolling hills of the Golan. The indigenous home of the Jewish people is a natural beauty to behold! No wonder there’s all that fighting; everyone wants a piece of the pie!
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be. - Anne Frank
One of the longest-running studies on happiness found a correlation between happiness and letting go. There’s a reason older people have fewer grudges, unless we’re talking about the Banshees of Inisherin, of course. When in the Jewish calendar do we let go? Ever heard of Yom Kippur? Ever forgive someone on the Day of Atonement? Yeah, me neither.
When it comes to free will, the Jewish view is this: G-d knows in advance what we will choose, yet, as humans, the decision is up to us. I’m mentioning this because another factor of happiness is autonomy and the feeling of having control over your life. There are a lot of examples in the bible where G-d creates the situation, starting with Adam and Eve, but it is up to us to determine our fate.
“Everything is foreseen [by God], yet man has the capacity to choose freely” - Rabbi Akiva (Pirke Avot, 3:19)
I can’t not mention religion in a Jewish newsletter! Studies show that religious people are happier. Yes, even Jews. This is due to being a part of a community, which we mentioned, having faith, and expressing gratitude through prayer.
Some other happiness factors that can be found in Judaism: music (check), dancing (check), humor (come onnnn).
The Jewish Happiness Checklist
Tzedakah: Think of your favorite charity/cause. When was the last time you donated to it? Do you give to beggars on the Subway or street, or do you pretend not to hear them? Consider giving more. You might even want to follow the Jewish tradition of donating 10% of your salary to a cause of your choice.
Chesed: When was the last time you did something nice for someone, like tend to the sick, or volunteer? Consider volunteering - giving back to your community will not only help repair the world, but it will lift your spirits as well.
Community: Speaking of community, where is someplace you go where you know at least a few faces that make you feel welcome? Perhaps a Zoom book club, Hebrew class, or online video game? Be sure to check in at these groups regularly. You won’t regret it, and chances are, people will be glad you’re there.
Nature: I know it’s winter, but when was the last time you went outside for a stroll? Even closed your eyes and felt the sun on your face for a few minutes? If it’s been a while, this Shabbat, I encourage you to try it. No technology or other people, just you and your own thoughts. Sounds scary, I know, but freeing as well.
Letting Go: Speaking of freeing, is there anything you’re holding onto that you need to let go of? Do yourself a favor and let the past live in the past. The present is where the happiness is. Or it can be if you let it.
Free Will: Where in your life do you have some semblance of control? For happiness and sanity, it’s wise to focus on that which you can control, rather than can’t. For me personally, this is saying no and prioritizing rest.
Religion: Ever pray? Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, it feels good to express faith and gratitude. Science says so. Google some Jewish prayers or pick up a siddur, or Jewish prayer book.
Music: If you’re ever at a Shabbat or social gathering and there’s group singing, do you join in and let yourself go, or sit back, embarrassed or perhaps too self-important? It’s campy, but next time you get the chance, join in! Or when you’re alone, sing at the top of your lungs. Your inner child will thank you. Scroll to the end for some happy Jewish songs!
Dance: When’s the last time you danced? Do yourself a favor and go to a mirror right now, look your beautiful self in the eyes, and do a little jig. A funny move that makes your reflection giggle. It’s Friday after all!
And if you’re STILL feelin’ the blues, here are some happy Jewish songs to jam out to! Shabbat Shalom from this Ashkenazi Jew, but with the feeling and passion of a Sephardic Jew. xx What makes you happy? Comment below!
Shavua Tov - Avraham Tal
Shavua tov means ‘good week’ and it’s what you say after Shabbat ends to wish someone a good week ahead. This Israeli singer made this video during Covid and it’s so uplifting. I love when the older lady starts dancing! You can dance along, too!
Ashira - Mordechai Shapiro
Ashira means ‘I will sing.’ The king of Orthodox pop belts this out to G-d in the streets of New York City.
Sallam - Sheva
We sing this on every Birthright trip. Grab your bongos, kick off your shoes, and dance around the nearest bonfire! Hey, just be glad I didn’t post One Day by Matisyahu. I’m not that basic.
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