The Pursuit of Happiness

Last week, Columbia University’s Earth Institute released its yearly World Happiness Report. Yes, you read that correctly. This is an annual scientific survey that rates which countries throughout the world are happiest. How do they measure happiness? To be honest I have no idea, but apparently the study comes on the back of a growing global movement calling for governments and policy makers throughout the world to focus less on economic growth and more on people’s overall well-being. It is a fascinating idea that government policies, including economic policies, employment opportunities, and the like don’t necessarily cause happiness. Furthermore, financial struggles, unemployment, and even illness don’t cause one to be unhappy, according to the study. It’s just as we are taught in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages:

Ezeh Hu Ashir, Sameach B’Chelko.

Who is rich? One who is happy with want he has. 

Happiness has nothing to do with wealth. Rather, it has to do we appreciating the miracles in one’s life. Thus, Columbia’s Earth Institute decided to focus on happiness as the most important gauge of how successful a country is and its citizens are. 

According to the survey of 156 countries, the world’s happiest countries are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. Canada comes in at #6, Australia at #10, Israel at #11, and Mexico at #16. The United States of America ranks as #17. It makes you wonder what causes one’s happiness altogether. Why are the Swiss happier than we are? Why is Canada and the United Arab Emirates happier than we are? How can one even truly define happiness? After all, happiness is a part of our identity, a part of the fabric of who we are as a nation. The initial words of the Declaration of Independence clarifies for us that all are endowed by God with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Some of us spend our whole lives trying to accomplish that pursuit. Life is all about that pursuit. All we want to do is be happy. For happiness allows us to not worry about what others are doing, not worry about the problems in the world around us. Instead, it allows us to just focus on us. It allows us to be happy with whom we are. On the festival of Sukkot we sing the words: V’Semachta B’Hagecha, V’Hiyyata Ach Sameach, taken from Chapter 16 of the book of Deuteronomy, meaning And You shall rejoice in your festival and you will have nothing but joy. We are commanded to be joyful on the holiday! Furthermore, in our liturgy, we refer to Sukkot as Z’man Simchateinu , a time for our happiness and joy.

What an odd command. We cannot be happy, we cannot feel an emotion, solely because we are told to do so, simply because we are commanded to do so. Rather, we are happy because we are content with our lives and our appreciative of the blessings in our lives, and the blessing of being alive.

During Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Sukkot we read the book of Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiates. This book teaches us that there is a season for everything and reminds us of the importance of polarities. There is a time to be born, and a time to die; there is a time to plant and a time to reap; there is a time to laugh and a time to weep.

There is a time to be happy and a time to be sad.

Maybe we are told that Sukkot is a time to be joyous because it follows immediately on the heels of Yom Kippur, such a serious holiday. However, the Babylonian Talmud teaches that actually Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year. So maybe our hope then is to carry on the supposed joy of Yom Kippur and let it last and linger into Sukkot. Whatever the reason, we feel at a loss with such a command to be happy.

We as a community are still in a sense of shock follow the tragic event that took a member of our community and critically injured a child in our community. We are saddened. We are angry. We grieve. We ask and wonder how we can be happy, how can we be commanded to be happy, when our hearts continue to  break, when we continue to mourn?

Maybe Ecclesiastes had a point. We live in a world of polarities. We cannot appreciate peace without experiencing war. We cannot appreciate life without witnessing death. We cannot appreciate our health without experiencing illness. We cannot appreciate waking up to experience a new day, without coming face-to-face with life’s trials and tribulations. We cannot appreciate happiness, without also expressing gloom and grief. We cannot comprehend, nor will we ever comprehend evil, suffering, or tragedy. Still, we can come to appreciate our own lives. We witness sorrow, and come to experience joy. As the Psalmist taught, “our mourning will turn into dancing.”

There is a time to be sad, and there is a time to be happy.

HappyFaceImageWhen we see such darkness in the world, such chaos, and experience such tragedy in our own community, we give up on trying to be happy. We see tragedy on the news and find it hard to smile. This is exactly why we are commanded to be happy! Maybe if we were never commanded to be happy then we wouldn’t be. Being commanded to be happy allows us to let go of the heartache and tragedy. Being commanded to be happy allows us to wipe away the tears and begin to smile again.

Being commanded to be happy allows us to smile. Ron Gutman focused on the importance of smiling in a TEDTalks presentation he gave. He explained that smiling – that happiness – is actually our natural state. Seeing the darkness of the world changes that, but we are actually born smiling. 3D sonograms actually show that while still in the womb, developing babies are smiling. Babies continue to smile in their sleep when they are born.

He further noted that more than a 1/3 of humanity smiles more than twenty times per day, but children, who are still innocent and have yet to be exposed to some of the challenges of this world, smile as many as 400 times a day. That is why being around children make us smile. Smiling is contagious.

So if we are to fulfill the command of V’Semachta b’Hagecha v’Hiyyata Ach Sameach, then it begins with smiling. After all, Pirkei Avot teaches in the name of Rabbi Shammai:

Mekabel et Kol HaAdam b’sever Panim Yafot.

Greet every person with a cheerful face, with a smile.

In our smiling, may we experience the happiness that we seek, the happiness that we are commanded to find, and may such smiles and such happiness comfort us among the grief and sorrow that we all too often feel. May we all find happiness and joy in this festival and in our lives. Moadim L’Simcha and Chag Sameach.


– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


Filed under Holidays

2 responses to “The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Loved this! Very inspiring!

  2. Thanks so much for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed it.

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