Finally, I’m blogging on something I’m an acknowledged expert. Everyone knows me as someone who’s always happy. It’s not true, but that’s how I’m known. Actually, once every 18 months or so, I really feel down. I never push that aside. If I’m sad, there must be a reason, something worthwhile investigating—and likely mourning about. It always just lasts from half an hour to a couple of days, but those moments I cherish as precious.
This runs in my family. My mother, even after the Holocaust, was a happy camper (pun not intended). But before the Great Disaster, she was even happier. I saw a picture of nurses getting their diploma in the ’30s and so everyone should have been happy. But the one really beaming is my mom.
My brother was a very giving person, always willing to lend his ear to those in pain. But if, after a decade of listening to how much it’s hurting, life was still worth complaining about, he would start not liking it. Why always focus on the negative? Is that all that life can ever be about? He even created a word for people who always and forever complain: droeftoeters, which means: [people who always] trumpet [their] sorrow. It’s not us.
My father was the most serious of the bunch. He grew up poor, survived the Holocaust, and became a pulmonologist. In the beginning, it was fun. So many tuberculosis patents and newly discovered antibiotics that cured. But then, TB disappeared from the radar. What was left were people with asthma and many with lung cancer. Often, every week a patient of his would die. And he was often in mourning for a week. So, he whistled Bach while walking the corridors of the hospital. “Your father is so happy.” No, he was just trying to lift his spirit. He had many others who needed him.
Dutch culture is not a happy worldview. No doubt, classical Calvinism played a role. “Humans are evil and not inclined to any good.” Every day rain may also have contributed. The stellar Dutch psychiatrist P.C. Kuiper said: “Depression is the common cold of the brain: everybody has it.”
My wise, senior rabbi teaches that there can be two reasons for being happy. You feel good about something, or you don’t feel good, but you realize it’s for the best, it’s something you need to go through. I disagree.
I think that people are naturally happy. For no good reason at all. Built-in.
After you find yourself happy or decide to tap into your natural happiness, you may see many supporting ‘reasons.’ But really, they are fake excuses.
Just like most of the time, we don’t know why we are unhappy and blame something recent. But the roots are often long. That’s fake unhappiness.
Just like typically, we don’t know what made us angry and blame the outside. But in fact, we decide to be angry, to cover over other emotions.
For me, caused happiness is fake too.
We can (and should) be grateful for the good that befalls us. But happiness is not a result. Happiness is inborn. Look at toddlers waking up, all smiles and energetic. They don’t have ‘reasons.’ They’re happy by default.
Just like ‘healthy foods’ don’t exist. Health is a quality of us. We can eat or do things that support or endanger our health, but it comes from within.
I’m not advocating US middle-class fake smiling. You’re close to suicide, but you must show everyone your dental work results around the clock.
The US has even enshrined in its Constitution a right to pursue happiness. That’s the best way never to be happy. It’s like perusing the horizon. You’ll never get there. Assuming something outside of you will make you happy.
I’ve noticed that in the US, ads often try to sell feelings. This vacuum cleaner will make you happy. The Dutch would never buy a hoover for that reason. It should vacuum well—that’s all that’s needed, thank you.
The US is the world’s greatest consumer of anti-depressants. Whatever the Founding Fathers had in mind, pursuing happiness is clearly not working.
The Jewish Sages teach that those who have 50 want 100, who have 100 want 200, who have 200 want 400. Not only is it never enough. The more you have, the greater the amount you feel you’re lacking. The relative well-to-do frequently wonder how the really poor can be so happy.
That’s because they never became spoiled brats who must be pleased and entertained before they would consider a faint real smile if ever. Entitlement doesn’t make happy. It makes us displeased and unsatisfied.
It’s also because they can’t afford to be down. Happiness can be your last fortune. You squander that, you’ll be forced to live in total poverty. The Amsterdam working class has a saying: When you laugh, you’re rich.
The Real Thing
The Hebrew Bible commands us to be happy. If the happy semi-Festival of Purim is rabbinically instituted, how can happiness on Purim be biblically required? The answer: happiness is a biblical obligation all year round.
Jews accepted the Torah without preconditions. “We will abide [by it], and we will listen.” Shouldn’t we listen to the Commandments first? No, we trusted G^d. Blanco cheque. Your Wish is our Command (pardon the pun).
That’s how to be happy—which is part of Jewish life. Pull up the corners of your mouth. Mean it. (No fake smiles!) No ifs. Then you’ll remember why.
Nothing will make us angry but us. Nothing will make us happy but us.
The Festival of Booth is the happy time par excellence. If not now, when?