The Science Of Happiness

I hope that everyone had a truly lichtigen and uplifting Chanukah. As we know, one of the goals of every Yom Tov is to carry over the spiritual gains beyond the precious few days of special mitzvos and tefillos. Undoubtedly, one of these goals is to spread the joy and happiness into the rest of the year. But what exactly do we mean by this elusive word and concept of happiness?
Interestingly, a recent issue of the New York Times (Sunday Review, November 29, 2020) devoted many pages to just this topic. The title of the major piece was strangely “Happiness Won’t Save You.” It relates the sad story of “Philip Brickman…an expert on the science of happiness.”
There’s “a science of happiness”? Who knew?
As the author, Jennifer Senior, recounts, 38-year-old Mr. Brickman, an acknowledged authority on achieving satisfaction with life, “made his way onto…the tallest building in Ann Arbor and jumped.” Acknowledging that suicide is most often the result of a treatable mental illness, she nevertheless asks the poignant question: “What are we to learn from this man?” Her conclusion seems to be, as headlined in her title, that “Happiness Won’t Save You.”
Leaving aside our somewhat sardonic approach to the very category of a “happiness expert,” Mr. Brickman actually was the author of a well-known study about this subject. Its fascinating if unusual title is “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” The study surveyed many winners and victims of horrific accidents, people who became paraplegics or quadriplegics. For good measure, there was also a control group. The results indeed “violated common intuition,” but for a welcome change, they seem to coincide with the classic Torah view of happiness.
Amazingly, “the victims, while less happy than the controls, still rated themselves above average in happiness…the lottery winners were no happier than the controls.”
The authors, somewhat reluctantly, came to the inevitable conclusion that “Money! It doesn’t buy you happiness!”
The question raised in the article is also an obvious one: If Mr. Brickman had come to this conclusion, why did he commit self-destruction, the ultimate act signaling unhappiness?
The answer seems to be twofold. First of all, there is a tremendous gap between one’s academic studies and real life. Secondly, “Brickman seemed to be experiencing an unfamiliar sensation: failure.”
Interviews with family, friends and colleagues revealed a man in the throes of disappointment, defeat and despair. These devastating circumstances apparently propelled him to “climb 267 feet, 22 feet higher than the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge,” and end his life. The experts concluded that Brickman “had to liberate [himself] from unendurable pain.”
What does the Torah say about all this?
It is good to start at the very beginning of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s classic Michtav M’Eliyahu. On page one, he asks the very same question as the happiness scientists: “What constitutes happiness in this world?” Playing back and forth between the two Hebrew words pronounced identically (at least by Ashkenazim), he postulates that osher (with an alef, meaning happiness) would seem to flow from osher (with an ayin, meaning wealth). Rav Dessler at first suggests that although there are undoubtedly unhappy people who are fabulously wealthy, that is because there is an extraneous reason for their dissatisfaction. There is illness, family problems or other issues that cannot be solved by money, but otherwise, they would be happy.
Rav Dessler reveals that if we would interview these affluent fortunate people, they would admit that “they have the ayin but not the alef.” For most of them, says Rav Dessler, their “displeasure is part and parcel of their material wealth. It has caused them various jealousies and unattainable desires, all resulting in aggravation and joylessness. On the other hand, he points out, the simple workers at the bottom of society constantly believe that the people at the top are happy, and their yearning and prayers are focused on becoming like their bosses and masters. Yet, it is all an illusion.
Rav Dessler concludes: “It seems that, in truth, no one is happy… Can this be? Is it possible that the Creator fashioned such a giant world just for people to suffer such travails? This, too, is impossible.”
The answer, Rav Dessler teaches us, is that this is a wonderful world. However, it is we who have removed ourselves from this joyous place, as Chazal teach that “jealousy, illicit desire and honor” remove a person from the world.” In other words, it is not Hashem Who placed us in this place where it is difficult to be happy. On the contrary, “we can have the ayin as well as the alef if we realize and accept what the true riches are. “Who is rich? One who happy with his lot.” Rav Dessler notes that Pirkei Avos does not teach us that such a person is also rich, but that he is the only one who is rich, for it has already been proven that money never buys happiness. The conclusion must be that “there is no happiness which flows from material wealth. Only one who focuses exclusively on his spiritual wealth can become happy, not in any other way at all.”
There is a well-known story about Rav Zusia of Anipoli that must be the proof text of what might have saved Mr. Brickman and us all. A wretched man with a heart full of misery went to the Maggid of Mezeritch to vent and beg for a brocha. The rebbe responded that he couldn’t help him, but he should go visit Rav Zusia. Finding his destination in the poorest section of town, in a broken down hovel, he entered timidly. “Shalom aleichem,” Rav Zusia called out with a broad smile. “What can I do for you, my friend?”
The already somewhat embarrassed fellow responded that the Maggid had sent him here to inquire about how to become happy.
“I’m so sorry, Reb Yid,” he answered sincerely, “but there must be some mistake. I wouldn’t know how to become happy if I had problems, because Hashem has given me everything I need.”
Looking beyond Rav Zusia, as rain poured through the broken roof, the visitor noticed several sick children in wheelchairs and various disabilities, a bare pantry staring him in the face. “Thank you, Reb Zusia,” he muttered. “I think the Maggid actually had the right address.”
Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach (Sefer Bemechitzosom) once asked, “How can it be that one is happy with his lot, when Chazal say that everyone wants double what he really has?” Rav Shach answered that “this is actually speaking of a person who has nothing, meaning absolutely no expectations of this world at all. Only such a person can be truly happy.”
Rav Shach seems to be setting the bar very high, but he is actually setting it very low, where our material expectations should be.
The Nodah B’Yehudah (Drushei HaTzelach) quotes a posuk we often recite in davening: “Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who prepares rain for the earth, Who makes mountains sprout with grass” (Tehillim 147:8). He explains that although the darker the clouds, the more bleak things seem, it is just Hashem “preparing” the welcome rain which brings its life-giving blessings.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos 5:222, page 323) recalls often hearing irreligious people condescendingly claiming that the Torah, with all our restrictions and prohibitions, does not allow us to enjoy the world. “On the contrary,” he roars, “this is the joy of a Torah Jew who is able to enjoy the spiritual pleasures of Hashem’s world unshackled by the constant rattling of the chains of materialism.”
Finally, the rov of Yerushalayim, Rav Betzalel Zolty, once asked, “Dovid Hamelech says, ‘Man cannot take it all with him’ (Tehillim 49:18). Can man take anything at all with him? However, in this world, everything is exaggerated. If someone has a million, people say he has two million. If he has five, people say he has ten. When he dies, he takes only the exaggerated number. The rest remains here, outside the grave.” As we learned from Rav Dessler, there really is no joy – and certainly no permanence – in the physical world. But the spiritual world of Torah, mitzvos and good deeds truly brings both happiness in this world and eternity in the next. No, there is no science of happiness, but for us, there are many opportunities for true joy. Let us hope and daven that the light of the Chanukah neiros will continue to light our way toward the sublime happiness of a Torah life.