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Happiness is Good, But Torah Tells Us to Strive to be Holy

Passing Torah Midor Lador at Ethan’s Bar Mitzvah

When passing down Torah midor lador (from generation to generation), especially at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service, we illuminate the unique contributions Torah brings to the way we look at and live out our lives. I often say,

  • In a world that teaches us its all about being happy, Torah says that we should strive to be holy.
  • In a world that teaches us that its all about making a buck, about getting rich, Torah says that money is okay, but we have been given what we have in order to help enrich the lives of others.
  • And in a world that teaches us that its all about me, that I can do what I want, Torah comes to teach us that we were put on this earth for a higher purpose, to transform it, into a place filled with emet (truth) and tzedek (justice), to fill it with ahava (love), so that it will become a place of shalom (peace).

Self interest, making money, seeking happiness – these are all positives within the Jewish mindset.  But they are not enough.  As partners with God, we seek higher purpose. We call that “holiness” or “kedusha“.  Some call it “finding meaning”.

There’s More to Life than Being Happy
Thus comes an essay, entitled There’s More to Life than Being Happy (The Atlantic, Jan. 9, 2013), which argues that seeking happiness is overrated and in many ways selfish. Rather, we should strive to find meaning, which most often is found when we turn outward, engaging and being in relationship with others.  Quoting Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl and new studies on happiness and meaning among others, the well-argued essay suggests that Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”  

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write [emphasis mine]. How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want.

Its about Finding Meaning
The Atlantic essay moves us toward finding meaning, continuing:

“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview. 

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. 

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Moving from Inward-Focused to Other-Focused
Torah, with its focus on helping others, reaching out to the vulnerable and the stranger, moves us from being inward focused to being other focused. We assume responsibility for transforming the world and thereby transform ourselves (thus tikkun olam encompasses and leads to tikkun atzmi).

May our work on this earth, in this life, lead us toward meaning and purpose, so that in relationship with others and our world, we can deepen our lives and ennoble our souls.

Where do you find meaning? 

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