If you ask the average person what he or she wants in life, they will likely answer with one word: “happiness.” We live in a world that defines success in life as achieving happiness. Is happiness the ultimate Jewish goal? Or is it simply a Western value that has been imposed on our view of Judaism? What exactly is the Jewish approach to happiness?
In Parshas B’Chukosai, the Torah lists the many curses that will befall klal Yisrael if they do not observe Hashem’s commandments. Later on in the Torah, when describing these terrible curses, Hashem informs us that we will receive these punishments because we did not serve Him with happiness (Parshas Ki Savo – D’varim 28:47). Additionally, the pasuk in T’hilim states, “Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah” (100:2) – serve Hashem with happiness. It seems, therefore, that happiness is, in fact, a Jewish value. What then is the deep nature of happiness, and how does a lack of happiness warrant these terrible curses?
Pleasure vs. Happiness
Happiness should not be confused with pleasure. Pleasure is instant gratification, a fleeting sensation that is gone as quickly as it comes. Unhealthful food, meaningless entertainment, and other quick fixes all fit into the category of pleasure. The moment you’ve finished enjoying pleasure, it fades away.
Happiness is of a fundamentally different nature. True happiness is what you experience when you are working towards becoming the person you are meant to be. When you use your challenges as a means to grow, when you expand as a person and achieve constant internal growth, that is happiness. You needn’t be smiling every step of the way, for genuine growth usually involves significant pain and hardship. However, as long as you know that you are heading towards where you need to go, that you are building the person you are meant to become, even the pain is accompanied by a feeling of happiness. External displays of success pale in comparison to the joy of true internal progress and growth. Let us expand our understanding of this topic by developing three keys to happiness.
As we have stated, growth is the underlying root of deep existential happiness. This is because the deepest human desire is to express our unique purpose in this world. We therefore feel incredible happiness when we are growing and maximizing our potential, fulfilling our purpose.
The baalei machshavah explain that all happiness stems from self-expansion. This is because Hashem is the all-encompassing creator of this world, and each of us, as a tzelem Elokim, has an infinite root, as well. As we expand ourselves, we tap into our root oneness, resulting in a feeling of existential happiness. We experience this truth in our everyday lives. When you expand your mind by understanding a new Torah concept, understanding something new about the universe, human psychology, or about yourself, you experience a deep state of joy. The same is true when expanding your inner awareness of self, or when pushing past boundaries and becoming a greater version of yourself. The greatest paradigm of self-expansion is when you expand your sense of self to include others. Marriage is the ultimate opportunity for this, and having children allows for both you and your spouse to collectively expand outwards into the world even further. However, all forms of giving to others, whether it’s giving time, love, money, or anything else, is a form of self-expansion that allows you to expand your sense of self to include others.
There is an essential aspect of this category of happiness that is crucial to understand. Many people believe that growth and personal development will one day result in happiness. The mistake they make is thinking that happiness will only come once they reach their destination, once they achieve total perfection. As a result, they end up miserable, longing for a goal they will never achieve. This is because true perfection is impossible. We will never be perfect, we will never be a finished product, we will never be “done.” These people often give up, or at the very least, rush the process for the sake of reaching the end. The key is learning to enjoy the process of growth. There are always extremists – those who refuse to strive for perfection, and those who blindly chase after a state of perfection that can never exist. Once you realize that the goal of self-perfection is only there as a direction, as a means to create the journey of growth and self-development, you can find happiness in the process of becoming. We will never be perfect, but that’s okay; the goal is to become more and more perfect. The vision and goal is important, but only inasmuch as it helps create your journey of self-improvement. Happiness is when you live fully in the present moment of growth and becoming, enjoying every step of the process. In truth, you will never be “happy,” fully satisfied and in a state of existential bliss. You should constantly be happier, as you embark on the journey of growth and becoming. The goal is not to be; it’s to become.
While happiness results from the expansion of self as we actualize our potential, there are a few keys that are necessary to fully experience the happiness we generate when fulfilling our mission. One of those keys is mindset. The same letters that make up the word b’simchah – in happiness – form the word machashavah – thought. This is because your thoughts, mindset, and attitude have a tremendous impact on your internal state of being. No matter how much you are growing and achieving, without the right attitude and mindset, you will not be happy. As simple as it sounds, making the decision to be happy is one of the greatest strategies for achieving happiness. We all know people who wait around for something great to “happen” to them, claiming that only when “such and such” happens will they be happy. Proactively deciding to be happy can fundamentally change the way you perceive happiness. Don’t wait for an external reason, just decide.
There is, of course, a deeper layer to this. When you apply the principle of hakaras ha’tov – gratitude and recognition of all the good in your life – it fundamentally changes your perspective and allows you to see things as they truly are. In truth, we don’t deserve to be alive in the first place. We never earned the right to exist. There was no guarantee that we would wake up today and there is no guarantee that we will wake up tomorrow. There are lots of people who were here yesterday, and they’re not here today. Our life is a gift, a constant gift from Hashem.
Giving: Becoming Part of Something Greater Than Yourself
The last key to happiness is recognizing that the goal of life is not only self-perfection, but devoting all of your self-development into something greater than yourself, contributing it to klal Yisrael. When you are able to get outside of yourself and focus on becoming part of the klal, part of the collective community, you automatically feel an inner sense of happiness. This is why happiness is connected to the chagim in which the Jewish people were oleh l’regel – when they joined together as a collective whole in Eretz Yisrael. When we expand beyond our own personal struggles and problems and devote ourselves to others, our worries fade away and a rich sense of inner peace is left in its place.
Serving Hashem with Happiness
We now understand what it means to serve Hashem with happiness. This is accomplished when we realize that being a true eved Hashem – devoting our life to Hashem – is our purpose in life and should be the focus of all our self-development. We can only be miserable while serving Hashem if we view it as a burden; when we do it robotically, out of habit, just going through the motions. When this happens, Hashem sends us challenges, through the form of the curses, as a wake-up call. It is only when we realize that the only way to fulfill our purpose and actualize our potential is by completely devoting ourselves to Hashem, to our root, to our source, that we can truly be happy. Happiness is neither a means nor an end; it is what manifests when you are becoming the person you are destined to become. In essence, happiness is a revelation that you are on the right track.
We don’t get to control our circumstances; we choose only how to respond. Happiness is not the goal of life, living a life of truth is. But happiness is still important; it is the gift Hashem gives you when you are heading on the right path towards your higher goals in life. It is there to help you continue down the right path. Happiness comes from growth, from enjoying the process, from the right mindset, and from devoting our life towards something greater than ourselves. May we be inspired to serve Hashem with genuine happiness and enjoy the process of becoming the very best that we can be.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com
 - See article on Parshas Mas’ei for more on this concept.