Can we be Authentically Happy? Part 1

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Purim is right around the corner and now we are obligated to be happy. That’s an order! After all, “When Adar arrives, we increase our joy.” But is it really up to us to choose to be happy? After all, life is full of sad events and our psyches certainly give us plenty of opportunities to feel heavy-hearted. What can make us release it all and simply rejoice?

For happiness to be authentic and not just a happy face that we put on while hiding feelings of depression, it must well up from inside. It cannot be external to us or another project that we take upon ourselves. This happiness is something that should be the essence of our lives—natural, flowing, and simple.

This happiness is not the result of external events. Just the opposite. It is the reason for myriad good things that can emerge from us. It vitalizes us from inside, releases us from heaviness and gives us a shot of energy and liveliness for all the facets of our personality. True happiness is not dependent upon something that has to happen. We are simply happy for no particular reason.

Natural joy is the happiness in who we are, in our very existence. It already exists within us. All we need to do is to uncover it—and particularly—to choose it and adopt it as a way of life. This discovery manifests in each of the powers of the soul, which completely transform when they meet up with happiness.

Happiness: Vitality of the Soul

A primary innovation of Chassidut is to “serve God with joy.”[1] Of course, Chassidut did not discover happiness. Jewish sources are replete with praise for joy in the service of God, such as, “The Shechinah does not dwell from a state of sadness, nor from a state of laziness nor from a state of revelry – but rather from a state of joy in the performance of a mitzvah.”[2] Nonetheless, Chassidut highlighted joy and established it as a central tenet.

A synonym for joy is vitality. One can be a God-fearing Jew who fulfills the Torah and mitzvot, but in a relatively dry manner, bereft of enthusiasm or inner vitality. When we perform God’s commandments with joy, we vitalize them, adding new dimensions to their fulfillment. For example, a person can recite the Kiddush on Shabbat perfunctorily. But when he recites the Kiddush with joy in the gift of Shabbat and in his testimony that God created the world, he vitalizes the prayer.

When we perform mitzvot with joy and vitality, we show God that we are far beyond simply performing them by rote, but rather, we take joy in Him and His mitzvot. This brings God pleasure. There is no greater pleasure for a father than to see his children enjoying something that he has given them. For this reason, the Ba’al Shem Tov said that the mitzvot were given primarily for the joy of the performance of the mitzvah concealed within them.

Joy in all the Powers of the Soul

Beyond the vitality with which joy infuses mitzvot, it also vitalizes our souls. Happiness connects to all of the powers of the soul, from the super-conscious, through the intellect, the emotions and down to the behavioral powers of action. It vitalizes them and illuminates them with a new light. Some of the powers of the soul, like love or trust, are naturally connected to happiness. But there are also more “serious” powers, like fear or lowliness. What do they have to do with happiness? Chassidim are seriously happy. And even when they are serious, their happiness abounds. Joy safeguards seriousness, keeping it from transforming into sadness and heaviness.

Let us present some examples of happiness as a motivating, vitalizing power, by focusing on the sefirot.  How does happiness work together with each of our soul’s faculties?

Joy and Self-Nullification

We begin with the effect of joy on the sefirah of wisdom. The experience of wisdom is described as self-nullification. One of the greatest dangers in the service of God is pride. Pride, or egocentricity, is the root of all negative characteristics. Happiness can be just a hairsbreadth from pride: I succeeded, I am happy and satisfied; and then, before I know it, I have fallen into a sense of pride. True happiness, however, is accompanied by a sense of self-nullification before God.

Nobody can ever offer enough appreciation for our efforts and success. We invest energy into maintaining our achievements and replicating them. This causes stress and irritability. The achievement of which we were initially proud will lose its sheen. The next time, it will be self-understood and will push us to new expectations.

True happiness, on the other hand, is infused with self-nullification and appreciation for God’s goodness: God gave me a gift and I thank Him. We did not create ourselves, our achievements are not ours and we don't have to think about them too much. We can simply remember them and be happy. The more invested we are in ourselves, the more our happiness is conditional upon our achievements. And the more that we are ‘out of the picture’ and are not focused upon ourselves, the more that we manage to see God’s goodness as it appears in reality and flows within us. With this approach, our happiness becomes natural and permanent, almost like breathing. With every breath that a person takes, he should praise his Creator. We breathe joy with a sense of gratitude for God’s goodness.

Joyous Return to God

A return to God, or teshuvah, is described as the experience of the second intellectual sefirah, understanding. How does joy figure into our seeking to return to God? Before the emergence of Chassidut, the notion of doing teshuvah usually involved feelings of fear, bitterness and contraction of the soul. Happiness was the furthest thing from the hearts of people during the month of Elul—the month of teshuvah. Connection to happiness, however, propels teshuvah into another dimension, which the sages refer to as teshuvah motivated by love.

When teshuvah is motivated by love, the focus transfers from ourselves and our failures to our relationship with God and our renewed connection to Him. When a father and son who had previously undergone a crisis in their relationship reunite after years of detachment, the experience is primarily one of great joy. This is the way to do teshuvah: with joy at the opportunity to return to God. As it is written in the Tanya: “And this will be his service all his day, with great joy…and as our sages said, to be ‘all his days in teshuvah.’”

Joy and Confidence

Confidence is how we experience our soul’s faculty of victory—it is the experiential counterpart to the sefirah of victory. Joy and confidence (sometimes translated as trust) are especially connected, as in the verse, “For in Him our hearts will rejoice, for in His Holy Name we are confident” (Psalms 33:21). The connection between joy and confidence is two-directional. Joy intensifies confidence and confidence fills the heart with joy. When a person is experiencing difficulties but manages to maintain complete and absolute confidence that God will save him, he is filled with joy—even before his reality changes for the better. On the flip side of the coin, when we are happy, it is easy for us to energetically and effortlessly take action, with complete trust in our success and in the positive influence that we will have on our surroundings.

So, get up, take action and be filled with happiness!

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[1] Psalms 100:2.

[2] Shabbat 30b.

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