Of all the emotions that we humans possess, being happy is perhaps the most precious one of all. Being happy is what God wants us to be. Whatever your occupation, whatever your role in life, God wants us to do our job on earth in a state of joy. God wants us to be happy, and He has laid out in the Torah a path that we can follow to be in a state of joy on a regular basis, if not most of the time. That path is not an easy path to follow, for it requires dealing with many issues that we face in life, good and bad, serious and insignificant, whether we are young or old, man or female.
The Torah’s path is very clear. It is a path of joy. The Torah commands us to be happy (Devarim 26:11) and is referred to as “a tree of life.” However, as with other things that are complicated, the path is not obvious because there are so many issues that need to be dealt with.
What is happiness?
Happiness is a state of mind that every person can develop. Every day when you wake up, you can tell yourself that it will be a great day or an awful day regardless of the situation you face. When I wake up, I sit on the edge of my bed for a few minutes to decide what I will do after going to the bathroom. That’s always a good start. I can put a smile on my face, say good morning to my wife and do what I have to do, or I can be upset and miserable about what’s ahead. It’s all up to me, and I can go either way. Your attitude, of course, is partially a result of your situation, whether you are sick or well, whether working or not, whether alone or with someone. Still, you are in charge of your attitude and you can see your situation in a positive or negative way.
When you are happy, it exhibits a feeling of well-being, an acceptance of where you presently are, and a contentment that wherever you are right now is okay. It doesn’t mean that you want to stay there going forward, but it is a deep satisfaction that you accept the reality that you are presently in. It is what it is.
But more than that, happiness is a positive attitude about your life, being glad of your life, even though you are aware of the difficult challenges you may face. One way to look at being happy is to be happy right now regardless of what will happen in the next second, next minute, or next hour. There is, of course, an obligation to move forward in whatever you will do next, but right now you are happy with yourself. And then going forward, happiness becomes an obligation to yourself to also act with joy and enthusiasm, and to be a “shining sun” to everyone.
Happiness is an ethical requirement
We owe it to others to work on our happiness. Happiness can be infectious, so other people can catch it. When we’re happy, it can make other people happy. People want to be around people who have a smile on their face and have joy in their heart. People act more decently when they are happy. You can expect to be treated with decency and probably with more respect when the other person is happy.
Since we are obligated by God to be happy, if you are an unhappy person, then if reflects not just on you, but on your family and even your religion. After all, God has told the Jews that we should be happy, so if we are unhappy, it reflects on our own religion. If a Jew is unhappy, then perhaps the Jewish religion has failed and certainly that person cannot be as Jewish as he or she thinks. One person, of course, being unhappy does not reflect on that person’s religion, but if a large group supporting that religion are unhappy, then it does reflect on their beliefs, because that religion is supposed to make people happy, not unhappy.
Being in a happy mood and being joyous with others is determined by hard work to control your emotions and by having an attitude that you will not be unhappy. Being happy becomes a daily responsibility.
Happiness is your obligation
To address this, the rabbis over the ages, over more than 2,000 years, have studied the Torah carefully and developed the path to being in a state of happiness and joy. Rabbi Chaim Vital, one of the great kabbalists of the 16th century, said that “One of the four basic character traits essential to acquire is to constantly feel happy.”
The other three traits are: appropriate silence, humility and control of desires.
It is a great mitzvah to be happy, but people can be miserable because they desire things they don’t have, they worry about the future, they are angry about one thing or another, they are discouraged about their ability, they have a hatred for a person or a thing, they envy what others have, or they are suffering from a loss.
Regardless of all these emotions, and there are many more, you can make yourself happy, at least for most of the time.
Bottom line: Being happy is an attitude. You are in charge of it every moment in your life.
Allen H. Lipis is a regular columnist for the AJT and an active member of the Orthodox community who writes about issues of personal and professional development.