Judaism as a Source of Happiness

The audience filled the moot court room of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law to capacity on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, to hear Tal Ben-Shahar deliver the annual lecture of the Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Scholar-in-Residence Program, “Judaism and the Source of Happiness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Research.”

(l-r): Dr. Karen Bacon, Tal Ben-Shahar, Marcia Robbins-Wilf

Ben-Shahar, who has a BA in philosophy and psychology and a PhD in organizational behavior from Harvard University, said that his academic life was changed forever when he paused to ask himself two simple questions: Why wasn’t he happy, and how could be be happier?

To answer those questions, he blended contemporary research and Jewish tradition on five core topics that he hoped would lead to a greater understanding of how to achieve happiness in our lives.

The first topic touched on the importance of giving oneself permission to be human, which to Ben-Shahar meant finding ways to honor one’s negative feelings without becoming resigned to them. “If we want to truly be open to experiencing happiness, we need to learn to allow unhappiness into our lives honestly,” he noted, finding similar advice in the writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who outlined three steps to take in the face of suffering; acknowledging the emotion (accepting that the negative emotion is there), acting (not resigning yourself to it) and having faith.

The second topic that Ben-Shahar stressed was, appropriately enough, dealing with stress and the accompanying feeling of being overwhelmed. While stress may not be possible to eliminate, “those who are happy and successful are able to punctuate their lives with periods of recovery and thereby allow themselves to re-energize and refresh themselves,” which can range from a micro-break of thirty seconds to getting a good night’s sleep to taking full advantage of the macro-breaks Judaism provides, such as shabbat [Sabbath] or chagim [holidays].

Tal Ben-Shahar speaks to a full audience about achieving happiness

If the first two topics concerned controlling the negative effects of feelings and stress, the last three topics were about doing positive things to build towards happiness: practicing mindfulness, being charitable and giving thanks.

  • Mindfulness: The ultimate goal of mindfulness, through listening or meditating, is to be present wherever one is and in whatever one does, captured in the concepts of kavvanah [devotion] and mitzvot [deeds]. The goal is to fill us with appreciation for what we experience in the here and now.
  • Giving: Ben-Shahar pointed out that the Hebrew word “natan” [to give] is a palindrome, signifying that when we give something (both to ourselves as well as to others), we get back happiness. The goal is to be self-full, a synthesis of selfish and selfless.
  • Gratitude: Ben-Shahar suggested that taking time to write down the things for which we are grateful can make us happier and healthier. “Each morning, we are careful to say ‘Modeh’ [thanks] before saying ‘Ani’ [I].”

He urged all in the audience to put these techniques into practice because “only by introducing these ideas into our lives as rituals will lasting change come about, and we will truly realize that everything in life is a privilege, including life itself.”