the column | Don?t worry, act happy
How much would you pay to learn how to be happy? I had to pause when I got the email yesterday from Chabad Rabbi Yisrael Rice in Marin, with this subject line: Are you a happy person?
First reaction: Who wantsta know? Second: What’s it to ya?
Once I calmed down and read further, I saw he’d sent a press release for a Rohr Jewish Learning Institute course launching next week, devoted to Jewish perspectives on happiness. Called “How Happiness Thinks,” it’s a six-week class on positive thinking, combining traditional Jewish approaches with modern psychology, according to the write-up. And for the first time in its 16-year history, JLI — Chabad’s adult education branch — has teamed up with the American Psychological Association, which is offering 15 continuing-education credits for the course.
Happiness and college credit — nice.
I picked up the phone right away and called Rabbi Rice. As soon as he answered, I started harassing him. What about parents who insist they “only” want us to be happy? Isn’t that a terrible burden to place on a child? If we’re not happy, are we failing them, not to mention ourselves? And despite the insistence in the Declaration of Independence that the pursuit of happiness is our inalienable right, is that really a worthy goal? Or a goal at all?
Once he’d caught his breath, Rice gamely took up my gauntlet. “First thing we have to establish is, are we supposed to be happy?” The answer, he insisted, is yes. “We are supposed to be happy. God wants us to be happy.”
Well, that’s lovely, really. But you wouldn’t think human happiness is a Divine priority, given all the misery in the world.
Clearly, Rice rejoined, there are times when we are supposed to be sad. “This isn’t a Panglossian approach,” he said. (Rabbi’s been reading his Voltaire!) But, he continued, our natural state is to be happy.
“Look at a child — they’re happy,” he said. “It’s the default setting in the human system. As life goes on, it gets complicated. There’s this little program in our head that always finds the negative twist, telling us we’re not quite good enough, not skinny enough, not healthy enough, not rich enough.
“Bottom line, we need to dedicate time to positive programming.” (Rabbi’s also been reading Psychology Today!)
Stop dwelling on the negative, he continued. Look at all the blessings you have. Feel gratitude for those blessings. “A heart filled with gratitude can contain no resentment. One of the lessons focuses on that. Unhappiness is when we lose sight of our blessings.”
OK, he said, so it isn’t rocket science. (He didn’t say that — I’m paraphrasing.) “A lot of this is intuitive, but it helps to hear it again.” (That’s what he really said.)
Fine, but how do you “teach” happiness? And isn’t it weird, unreasonable even, that Torah “commands” us to be happy at certain times, like on Shabbat (when we’re not even allowed to mourn) and on Purim? How can you be happy on demand?
To this, Rice had another tip, also to be covered in the course: If you don’t feel happy, act happy. The rest will follow.
“Remind yourself that you’re allowed to be happy,” he counseled. “Give yourself permission. Take a breath, walk a little, extend it to your face, smile. Even if you’re not in a happy mood, acting in a happy way will elicit a happy result in your mind and heart.”
JLI has been putting together these multiweek courses for Chabad since 1998, on a variety of themes. Some are more esoteric — courses on mysticism and messianism, for example. But most are on practical topics — business ethics, good parenting, building a great marriage — the kinds of things anyone, Jew or not, could benefit from. That’s the point, said Rice. And he should know, because he’s been on the course advisory committee since the beginning, working with JLI headquarters in Brooklyn.
I’ve often toyed with the idea of taking one of these courses. Maybe this will be the one. It will be offered at hundreds of locations, including several in the Bay Area. And, Rice reminded me, in most places the first class is free.
“Come check it out,” he urged. “Or take the freebie and go — be happy with it!”
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.