On Rosh HaShanah we celebrate the creation of the world, and the birthday of humanity. On Yom Kippur we fast, we pray, we atone for our sins, and, wearing the white kittel we will be buried in, we face our mortality. And now, on Sukkot, we leave our sturdy houses to dwell in a fragile hut close to nature for a last chance at tranquillity and reflection before we begin our New Year in earnest.
What will 5777 look like for each of us? Who do we want to be? What kind of life do we want to lead? Today, on Chol haMoed Sukkot, as our Season of New Beginnings draws to a close, I want to talk about something I imagine we would all like more of in our lives: How to be Happier.
Tal ben Shahar was a computer science major at Harvard. By all accounts, he should have been happy. He was successful academically, played varsity sport, was popular socially. And yet – he was not happy. One morning he woke up, went to see his Harvard tutor, and switched to philosophy and psychology, going on to complete a phD in Positive Psychology. Known as The Science of Happiness, Positive Psychology examines – not people suffering from mental illness and finding how to fix them – but those human beings who enjoy good mental health and seeing what strengths and strategies they employ to achieve and maintain balance. Tal did get happier, and went on to teach Harvard’s most successful undergraduate course of all time – Happiness 101, which attracted global media attention when it overtook Harvard’s introduction to Economics course. Really? Harvard students are more interested in How to be Happy than How to be Rich???!!
I’d like to share with you some key elements to leading a Happier Life, based on Tal ben Shahar’s Happiness 101 (you can find him on his website or on YouTube), on the findings of other leading Positive Psychologists, and on the work of Action for Happiness, a new organisation whose patron is the Dalai Lama.
The number one predictor of happiness and well-being is the time we spend connecting with people.
Enjoying a diverse range of different kinds of friendships, fulfilling different levels of intimacy, and spending time with people we care about and who care about us, is essential to happiness. Surprisingly, being married is NOT essential to well-being, although a nurturing, stable partnership is clearly a good means of doing this. Connecting with people includes our interactions with the shopkeeper in the corner shop, the stranger in the queue at the post office, as well as with our level of connectedness with all human beings, animals and plant life on the planet, from the Syrian refugee escaping war and violence in Syria, to the endangered species in the Amazon rain forest.
Focusing on the Positive, and Expressing Gratitude
In 2002 Emons and Mccullough carried out ground-breaking research on 3 groups of people. The first group were asked to write down at the end of each day 5 things they were grateful for. The second group were asked to write down 5 hassles they had experienced during the day. The control group were asked to write down 5 random things that happened during the day. At the end of 6 months the groups were assessed according to a number of scientifically measureable criteria. The group that proved the most successful, the happiest, the most generous and benevolent, the most physically healthy and the most optimistic were – the group that had been writing down the things they were most grateful for.
Focusing on the Positive includes paying attention in the moment, so that we are able to appreciate and savour the treasures of life.
When you make a good financial investment, we say the investment appreciates in value. We can say the same for expressing gratitude. When we appreciate the good, the good appreciates. The opposite is also the case. When we don’t appreciate the good, the good depreciates.
Stamford psychiatrist Irvin Ya’alom carried out a research project on terminally ill patients with 3-6 months to live. Many reported: ‘For the first time in my life I feel that I’m alive.’ Knowing that they had only a limited time left to live, they gained a heightened appreciation for … taking a breath, a walk in the park, being with the people they care for. But do we have to wait till our days are numbered to appreciate the treasures of life??
Part of Focusing on the Positive and Expressing Gratitude is sharing our wealth with others. In the act of Generosity – giving our time, resources and money – not only do we feel the warm after-glow of an altruistic action but, according to world-renowned neuro-scientist Richard Davidson, we activate circuits in our brain that lead to increased well-being.
Learn Something New!
Neuroscientists used to believe that the brain completes its development during the early years of life. Then research proved that the brains of teenagers undergo massive change, explaining their erratic sleep patterns and strange behaviour. Today there is indisputable evidence of the ongoing plasticity of the brain, with the capacity to create new circuits enacting lasting change and increasing well-being until the day we die. The effect of physical exercise on the brain and its effect in offsetting the development of dementia and Alzheimers is well-documented. As all U3A – University of the Third Age – devotees will attest, learning keeps you young and makes you happy.
And now let me tell you a secret. Not only are many of today’s leaders in the field of Positive Psychology and neuroscience Jewish – but a long-established framework for the day-to –day practice of these key pillars of Happiness can be found right on our doorstep– it’s called – living a Jewish life!
Here are some of the ways that leading a Jewish life can make you happier.
At the heart of Jewish life is community and family. Here is where we Connect with Each Other, coming together to share meals at home or in shul on Shabbat, Yom Tov and Chavurah dinners: 11th November our first Jazz service followed by a chavurah dinner here at SWESRS; Beginning of December, our first Chavurah@ home. Joining together in prayer to celebrate our Day of Rest and the Festivals, when we connect also to stillness, to God, to transcendence. In community is where we connect with each other to reach out to those who are isolated and alone; where we act together to make a difference in the current refugee crisis. I am hoping to have more news about proposals to set up a refugee and asylum seeker drop-in here in Redbridge very soon. In community is where we can exponentially multiply the effect of Generosity by giving our time together; by giving our money together – Thank You! to so many of you who have already donated generously to this year’s Kol Nidre appeal. In community we can also give our strengths, talents and skills, experiencing the satisfaction of belonging to something greater than ourselves.
In Judaism we have a wonderful framework for Focusing on the Positive, or, as I like to call it, Generating an Attitude of Gratitude. In Talmud Brachot The rabbis encourage us to recite at least 100 blessings each and every day. We begin the day with expressions of gratitude for the gift of life itself. There are blessings to recite before everything we eat and drink, and for the beauty of nature such as on seeing a rainbow. I see brachot as mindfulness opportunities. A golden gateway at regular intervals during the day when we can stop, pause, and appreciate the most fundamental gifts of daily living. I’ve been saying brachot for the past 28 years, and find them essential to my own well-being. Whether you begin saying brachot, choosing just 1, perhaps, to start with; or whether you follow Tal ben Shahar’s practice of writing down 5 things you are grateful for each evening, or take up the practice of sharing the highlights of your day with a partner or with your children – when we appreciate the good, the good appreciates!
And finally – to Learning. We are The People of the Book. For two and half thousand years we have turned and turned again the core texts of our tradition, from Torah to Talmud, from Halachah to Kabbalah. What will you learn in the coming 12 months? Perhaps you’d like to join our new Key Prayers of the Siddur class, or the Psalms class starting after Simchat Torah, or let’s tailor a class just for you, so you can be part of our proud tradition as People of the Book and.. be happier!
There are many more keys to Happiness – too many to explore here this evening. What’s for certain is that becoming happier is a life-long journey, that takes effort and commitment. The effort can be joyful – but, contrary to what today’s popular culture informs us, there are no quick fixes. ‘A happy – or happier – life is rarely shaped by some extraordinary life-changing event;’ says Tal ben Shahar. ‘Rather, it is shaped incrementally, experience by experience, moment by moment.’
Wishing you all Shanah Tovah, Moadim le Simcha and chag sameach!