I recently surprised myself by turning down a rare opportunity to attain what I had long considered to be my dream job. Having compromised my career for motherhood for many years, I had often compared myself to those I consider high achievers, judging myself as coming up short.
Yet here I was saying no. For
weeks I had toyed with the proposal, feeling flattered. At last, I felt needed by someone other than family and community. I could contribute to society at large. After all, my children were older now and surely able to cope. Doubts lingered, however. The job would
be all consuming. Was this really what I wanted?
Then the realisation hit me. I rather liked my life. True, I had to juggle work and family and never got the balance quite right. But I suddenly saw how much I cherish the time I have to write and the precious hours I spend with my children, who are growing up so fast, not to mention the importance I place on my voluntary work. I was not prepared to sacrifice any of them for another job, which I now recognised was no longer even my dream vocation.
That realisation has been a major step in my finding happiness. Not necessarily the emotional state of happiness, which Hugh Mackay in his 2013 book, The Good Life, dismisses as “the most elusive and unpredictable of emotions”, but rather happiness in its original sense, meaning to flourish.
While Mackay doesn’t like using the word “happiness”, lest it be confused with its modern, more selfish meaning of how you may feel at a particular moment, I don’t see any problem in striving to discover ‘the happy life’, becoming fully and meaningfully engaged in whatever is on offer.
Like many of us, I have often thought that what really matters is what makes us happy. We’re all going to die some day and few will long be remembered. So why not make the most of life? Indeed, didn’t the Americans think so highly of the pursuit of happiness that they enshrined it as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence?
Rather than seeking external factors such as pleasure, wealth, or honour, Mackay, however, argues that we should aim to live ‘the good life’, by which he means being motivated largely by compassion, treating others according to the Golden Rule of how we would like to be treated ourselves.
‘We ought to pursue goodness for its own sake...No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.’
In contrast, observant Jews seem able to find an opportunity for growth and meaning in every good deed they do and each bit of wisdom they acquire, apparently experiencing true happiness along the way. No wonder the 2011 Gallop survey found that religious Jews are amongst the happiest in the US!
In other words, doing good can make you happy and when you’re happy, you do more good. So happiness is actually a moral obligation.
Indeed, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who calls himself a ‘student of joy’, has an answer for the mother of young children, who is unable to pursue her career as planned. In his book, aptly titled Gateway to Happiness, he maintains that caring for family is an ‘act of kindness’ of the highest order since it usually goes unappreciated. By making the effort to remind herself how meaningful her God-commanded work really is, the mother will overcome her frustration and find true happiness. Oh to have that level of faith!
But what about the doubters or non-believers among us? Don’t we deserve the prospect of finding peace of mind and happiness too? Bertrand Russell thought so, maintaining ‘the happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life’.
As a child, my family urged me to find an interest in life to sustain me. Indeed, my grandfather lived as if on an insatiable intellectual quest, telling me, ‘life is full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries’. My family’s view of life involved plenty of struggle towards a noble cause – a view Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has identified as a form of happiness in Judaism: ‘the happiness that comes from challenge...there is fulfilment...passion...and moments of exhilaration’.
Today my children are taught a broader idea of happiness. Influenced by positive psychology, their teachers get them to identify their ‘signature strengths’, which they are to use to lead engaged and meaningful lives. This reflects the ancient wisdom: ‘Raise a child according to their way’ (Proverbs 22:6). In other words, you need to concentrate on what works for you. As 20th century philosopher Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler said, ‘Every man was created with a unique personality, strengths and challenges...and therefore everyone has a unique slice of heaven that is completely their own’.
My children are also taught gratitude. As the Talmud says, “Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).
Developing positive relationships is another area of focus. After all, we are social creatures who need connection through family, friendship and community. Surely such ‘social happiness’ is crucial to a society’s survival. In fact, the principle to “love your neighbour as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) has been called the most important in all of Judaism and the earliest form of the Golden Rule.
I certainly intend to continue focusing on relationships, finding meaning and purpose through work and community, and hopefully savouring many emotionally happy moments along the way.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor, a congregant of Emanuel Synagogue, and vice-president of the Board of Emanuel School.