Learning to appreciate the life you’re given is simpler than you think.
By Rabbi Chay Amar
Each one of us wants to be happy, and we invest incredible amounts of time, energy and money in the pursuit of that goal. In the quest to be happy, some people get married. To be happy, some people get divorced. To be happy, some people work 24/7. To be happy, some people abandon their careers and go mountain climbing in Nepal.
Though elusive, happiness is very important—emotionally and spiritually. In fact, the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides teachings say that G-d’s presence cannot dwell where there is sadness. He based this conclusion on the behavior of the Prophet Elisha, who asked that music be played to lift his spirits; otherwise, he could not prophesize. Thus, we can deduce that happiness is a requirement for connecting with G-d.
To better understand the meaning of happiness, we must first examine the meaning of sadness.
A study was conducted In 1956 to discern how many people were actually happy. The conclusion was that only 30 percent of the American people were happy. In 2006, 50 years later, the study was replicated and the result was the same—again, only 30 percent—despite a higher standard of living and a higher income per capita. This implies that the material state of the country does not correspond to the level of happiness of its people.
It also does not correspond to increased time available for recreation or to the increased technological sophistication of life in general. We now have all manner of hi-tech devices to keep us happy, not to mention HD movies broadcast with surround sound and mind-blowing special effects. And yet, we are no happier than people were 50 years ago. In fact, of all the legal drugs available, we consume more anti-depressants today than at any other time in our history and people die more often of suicide than of homicide.
This doesn’t make sense. After all, we live in a world where nearly everything that we need to be happy is at our disposal. Even the great pharaohs of Egypt did not have what we have. They may have built the pyramids, but they could not get on a plane and fly across a continent in a few hours. We live like kings, but we don’t feel like kings.
Inside our brain we have dopamine, the substance that makes us feel high, exalted, happy. If we decide to substitute it—for example, by getting high on drugs or by using other external stimuli—our brain shuts off its natural dopamine production. But, of course, we still need it to be happy. And since we are not producing this feeling on the inside, we must continue to get it from the outside—and that’s how a dependency is created, be it on drugs or alcohol or other feel-good substitutes like TV, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
I once gave thought to some of the things we use as crutches—a person walking with one crutch for his legs (a car), for his hands (a laptop), for his eyes (a TV), for his ears (a cell-phone). Suddenly, a hurricane hits. The streets are flooded, so he can’t drive, and because the power lines are down, all his other crutches cease to work. “Help!” he screams, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve disabled myself and now I am lost!”
When I started ponder that image, the man in it looked too much like me for comfort, so I decided to disconnect from the cell phone for a while. To be honest, the first time it happened by accident, because my phone broke and it was a couple of days before I could buy a new one. But in those two days, I realized that I could live without it, and then I started putting it away for several hours a day. I did not want it to be one of my crutches.
In kicking the habit, I followed Kabbalah’s three steps to happiness: Breaking, separating and sweetening.
When I gave up my phone dependency, I had to first break my dependence on it. I had to do something that was not at all pleasant: I had to put it away, shut it off, resolve not to answer it. At first I told myself, “But it’s important!” True, but so many other things are important as well that if everything is important, then nothing is important.
Once you make that break, you have to separate yourself from the object of your dependency completely. You have to go to that extreme to see how you can manage without your crutch.
For me, the breaking part of the process was painful, but the separating part was exciting. I was walking in the street without my cell phone, and I knew nobody could call me. Hooray! Also, I couldn’t call anybody, but I had the perfect excuse: “My phone is broken.” I spent the day with my kids. I actually talked with my wife without interruptions for the first time in months. Separating from one of my crutches helped me re-experience my natural state of being.
I felt like a man who had been recovering from an accident and was suddenly told by the doctor, “You can now walk without a cane.” I was enjoying just strolling, breathing, looking at the sky. That experience made me stronger, and this is what Kabbalah refers to as “sweetening.” My newfound strength allowed me decide when I wanted to turn on my cell phone, but I was no longer dependent on it.
When you are faced with a challenge, do you complain, or do you search deeper?
As a result of that experience, I changed my priorities. I began to devote more time to Talmudic studies, and I came across much advice for being happy. One Talmudic sage in particular—Rabbi Akiva—struck me as setting a particularly good example in this regard.
Until age 40, Akiva was an illiterate shepherd who impressed Rachel, the daughter of his employer, with his good qualities. She asked him, “If I marry you, will you enter a Torah academy to study?” He agreed. They were married secretly, but when her father found out, he disowned her. They ended up very poor and had to sleep on straw. Once when picking straw out of Rachel’s hair, Akiva made an ornament for her that looked like a tiara called “Jerusalem of Gold.” He promised her that if he ever became wealthy he would buy her a real one made of precious metals.
About this time, a poor man came knocking on their door, begging for straw because his wife had just given birth and he had nothing for her and the baby to lie on. Of course, Akiva gave him some straw, telling his wife, “There’s somebody who’s in an even worse situation than we are. Let’s appreciate what we have.”
That’s not how many of us would react, as in our society we tend to be focused on those who have more, bemoaning the fact that we have less. And, of course, that leads to discontent. Happiness means counting our blessings. As the sages whose advice is recorded in the 2nd-century work, Ethics of the Fathers, famously pointed out: “Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his lot.”
Those who are satisfied with their lot may not be rich in terms of possessions, but they are certainly rich in happiness because their very attitude uplifts them. And not only are such people happier, they are also stronger and able to withstand life’s storms and challenges.
When you are faced with a challenge, how do you react? Do you complain, or do you search deeper? What steps do you take to deal with the obstacle in your path? Do you try to discern what G-d wants from you in this moment? Or do you just moan and groan?
Rabbi Akiva understood that, just as he was feeling badly that he could not buy his wife a gold ornament and had to make one of straw, G-d sent him a reminder that at least he had straw, and he needed to appreciate what he did have. Rabbi Akiva understood the message, and then G-d rewarded him. By the time he completed his studies, he was already famous for his academic brilliance, and his father-in-law saw that he had misjudged him. He restored the inheritance that he had withheld from Rachel, and thereafter, the couple was able to live in comfort. And Rabbi Akiva did buy his wife a real “Jerusalem of Gold” hair ornament.
Try the following: For the next two weeks, take one of your crutches and detach yourself from it for an hour. Turn off the laptop, or the cell phone, or the TV for an hour. Let it go. And in that time, do something that’s going to permit you to transform and to grow to the next level. Then see how you feel. Chances are good that you’ll experience your own natural high.
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