On Being Happy and Feeling Good

A prevalent view that seems to be gaining momentum in the Western world is the emphasis on being happy and feeling good. This philosophy is often used as an excuse for actions that may not be to the satisfaction of family and friends. The justification is, “but he seems so happy.” People greet each other with such statements as, ” do what makes you happy,” and that appears to be the ultimate goal. As long as you are feeling good and happy, all is well.

There is clearly something inherently wrong with this viewpoint. It does not address such important issues as morality and integrity. I’ve heard people wish happiness on their children, “as long as they are not harming themselves.” Such a statement gives great latitude to the child in his quest for joy. This also deeply affects the ability for parents to discipline their children. The child can always blame his poor choices on following his goal of doing what makes him happy.

This attitude on life is indicative of the breakdown of real values in society. Deviant behaviors are tolerated because of the happiness factor. And it’s difficult to draw the line when people involve themselves with drugs, alcohol, and pornography. At what point does this philosophy say that what the person is doing is wrong and must be stopped. Who is the one that determines what these guidelines are?

This might also explain how it’s possible to condone breaking the law by rioting and looting. “They” are simply expressing their frustration in not being able to achieve the same happiness that more privileged people have. So many horrible behaviors are tolerated in the name of feeling good and being happy. At the end of the day, the “be happy, feel good” attitude might be a huge factor in the breakdown of society today.

Judaism places great emphasis on being in a state of joy at all times. However, there is a clear distinction between the joy that one feels by satisfying physical urges, as opposed to spiritual pursuits. All men were created in the image of G-d. This means that every person has a body and soul. If one lives only to satisfy the needs of the body, and his life is filled with pampering himself with whatever makes him feel good, he is not much higher than an animal. However, if one gives nourishment to his soul by doing acts of kindness and charity, and trying to walk in G-d’s ways, he, too will feel good and happy.

The difference between the two, is that physical pleasures are fleeting, but spiritual pleasures are not. Selfishness inevitably leads to sadness. Generosity leads to joy and contentment. If we were to amend the “be happy, feel good” philosophy, it would be to teach that making the right choices, and holding firm to one’s principles, is what really brings a person peace of mind.

I was privileged to have rabbis and teachers from the “old school.” As a rabbinic student, one wise old rabbi by the name of Rabbi Zelig Starr, often would ask us how we would like to sit in our chair, as we grew older. If you are insincere, phony, and hypocritical, when you sit in your chair, it will be like sitting on, “pins and needles.” But if you are true to your ideals, and you have the strength and courage, to do the right thing, you will sit comfortably in your chair.

This is how the youth need to be educated about feeling good and being happy. Real happiness comes with discipline and a value system based on our Torah and tradition. Do you want superficial, fleeting, shallow, happiness, or the satisfaction that comes from strength without compromise on ideals. As Jews, there are many demands placed upon us. Fulfilling all of the dictates of Judaism, is not easy. But in this case, as well, if one has the faith and courage to stand tall, and do all that is expected of him, there is a sense of joy and satisfaction, on the highest level.

Judaism is totally in favor of being happy and feeling good. This is so true that there is no way of life that can give a person such peace of mind, as living according to the Torah. This joy comes with hard work and discipline. And this joy will carry us through our entire lives even into the World to Come.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for nearly twenty years. He has been teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach, Old Katamon, Jerusalem, for the past twelve years. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles.