A recent article in the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 31, 2011: E-3) was concerned with the elusive quality of happiness.
We are at the age when this concept may be up for serious re-evaluation. Dr Valerie Ulene, the author of the article, noted studies that proclaimed “once basic needs are met, additional wealth doesn’t add much to people’s sense of well-being or contentment.” This is good news for many who often equate happiness with more money. Yet, many of us, like Ulene’s statement, are coming to understand that, while there may be nothing wrong with having more money, it does not buy happiness. Talk to those people you know who are truly happy and, more often than not, they will say that the basis for their happiness lies more in relationships and connection than economics.
Another spin on this was also part of this LA Times piece. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, co-director of Claremont Graduate University’s Quality of Life Research Center, notes that: “Health means not just the absence of disease but a positive sense of involvement and engagement in life. Unless you know how to enjoy life, your life is not really healthy.”
Much of this positive attitude approach to living is based on work by Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Seligman directs the Positive Psychology Center at Penn and has been the pioneer in this positive thinking approach to life. He sees happiness as a result of Pleasures (things that we like to do, that make us feel good yet are often transitory in nature) and Gratification, which are activities that engage us in life and that may transcend time and place.
Judaism has, as you might expect, a spin on this as well. It is one that has particular relevance for us as we age.
Maimonides cautions us to seek to live a life of balance, a “golden mean”. It is a life that sees involvement with all phases of human existence, from the intellectual to the sensual; all have a place. The challenge in finding our own sense of happiness, is to find the balance of all of life’s menu that make sense for us. That is why I place so much importance in the power of relationships, for it is in them that we often find the keys to living a balanced life.
Relationships help give us definition and direction and allow for a full experience of life; and yet, provide a safety net for when we start to drift outside of our own comfort zone. They also provide the means through which we can achieve a real sense of gratification for life. The prayer book, I suggest, reflects this view of experiencing life’s totality in the section called “the miracles of every day life” (nisim b’chol yom). This section gives thanks for the wide varieties of experiences that we encounter daily; it is a litany of blessings that remind us that we are blessed to be alive and that happiness comes from our acknowledging this blessing.
These are the miracles that no amount of money can buy, for they are the miracles of daily life; for which we derive meaning and happiness with each breath.
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min