27 February 2009
3 Adar 5769
This week we entered the Jewish month of Adar with two days of Rosh Chodesh (the festive, first days of the new month) – special tefillot (prayers), singing, funny clothes, and, everyone’s favorite, Rosh Chodesh donuts. While every Rosh Chodesh has a festive character to it, Rosh Chodesh Adar has added energy, creativity and fun as we anticipate the holiday of Purim only fifteen days away.
The month of Adar and the holiday of Purim inspire me with their combination of joy and silliness, encouraging us to break out of formal social conventions and to let loose a bit. And the theme of this month – Mishenechnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha (when Adar enters, we should multiply, increase in our happiness) – inspires me to reflect each year on the notion of happiness and its psychological, emotional, spiritual dimensions. What does it mean for our tradition to instruct us, or even to command us, as it does on other festivals, to be happy? Through the rhythm and rituals of the Jewish calendar, Judaism infuses occasions and entire time periods with different spiritual-emotional character and content. And our tradition certainly seems to expect us to feel certain things at certain times.
On Wednesday, my sicha (morning discussion group) learned about a biological framework for thinking about happiness, which raised important questions about our world, about what makes us happy and about why we often cannot find happiness. We watched a YouTube video of a lecture by Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, in which he introduced the concepts of “synthesized” happiness versus “natural” happiness. Citing various research studies, Gilbert claims that people overestimate the extent to which things that we predict or assume will make us happy (i.e. things we want) actually do make us happy. Many of us assume that happiness is that which we “naturally” experience when we achieve or receive that which we want or to which we aspire. In fact, Gilbert suggests, our brain naturally adapts to develop appreciation of, preference for, happiness with the hand we are dealt. In fact, the less choice we perceive we have, the more likely we are to “synthetically” produce happiness with our situation. We often view this kind of happiness with a “yeah, right;” we tend to see it as rationalization, avoidance of embarrassment or repression of disappointment. But Gilbert suggests that we have a psychological-biological capacity to manufacture happiness that is every bit as real and lasting as “natural” happiness. This is, essentially, a biological basis for the Hebrew saying and, for many, a spiritual outlook on life: “gam zu l’tova – this too is for the best.”
While I always expect healthy skepticism from our students, Gilbert’s presentation resonated with many of them. They immediately identified the college search process as an obvious example of these models of happiness in their lives. The idea of synthetic happiness also challenges any notion that there is one right or ideal college, one right partner, one right job for any of us. While we often assume that maximizing choices leads to the best possible outcome, it is often the inability to decide, the let-down of rejection or the ambivalence about paths not taken that can make people unhappy, rather than the actual experience itself.
We live in a world of exponentially multiplying choices. Just walk through the cereal aisle in a supermarket, try to buy electronics online, go through the college application process! And we assume, intuitively, that more choice leads to more happiness. Ironically, Gilbert’s studies suggest, this is not the case. Perhaps if we choose to limit choices, to commit, to accept what we have rather than long for the grass that is greener, we can accelerate our brain’s natural process of manufacturing genuine happiness.
This year we enter Adar facing particularly difficult challenges as individuals, a community, a nation, a world. It seems an appropriate time to reflect on what truly makes us happy and how, even during hard times, we fulfill our tradition’s mandate to marbim b’simcha, to multiply in our joy.
Rabbi Marc Baker