What does it mean to be happy?

My sister Chana & I laughing together during my recent trip to Melbourne. (courtesy)
My sister Chana & I laughing together during my recent trip to Melbourne. (courtesy)

Without a doubt, this is one of the most thought-provoking and intimidating questions of life.

Not long ago, a friend asked me out of the blue, “Chavi, are you happy?” I was taken aback; I was not expecting such a question in our seemingly nonchalant conversation. I even felt a little attacked; how could someone ask me such a personal question, I thought. LOL, stop being so dramatic, Chavi; it’s not like she asked you if you’re pregnant. For once, I remained silent, and after 20 seconds of thought, I shortly responded, “yes, I think I’m happy, but what does it even mean to be happy?”

The question of happiness is essentially one of the most triggering questions one can ask themselves and requires deep self-introspection. For many, they would prefer to opt-out and change the topic. I can imagine my grandmother agreeing with the latter, saying, “We don’t have time to talk about such things (happiness); we just need to live.” Although this school of thought has an element of truth, we sometimes need to resign to the unknown and continue living; I think happiness is something we should be thinking about and asking ourselves. However, this question of happiness is complicated and delicate. For some, they can realise just how unhappy they have been living their life and fall into a deep dark hole of self-loathing and pitying. Or, they could decide to pursue happiness, causing drastic changes in their lives. This can either make them happy or cause their lives to spiral out of control. Ultimately, is it a risk worth taking?

Google the word happiness; the gist you would get is happiness is an emotional state characterised by joy and fulfilment. But, if that is what happiness is, a range of positive and emotional states based on excitement, entertainment, exercise, humour, relaxation and even a good ice cream – that is not enduring. One moment you may feel and or be “happy,” and the next fleeting moment, not. This short-term happiness is essential but not the ultimate happiness. The reason is that these definitions of happiness are founded on one’s external surroundings. I think we can all agree that happiness stems from within and cannot be based on superficial reasons; as the common phrase goes, “money cannot buy happiness.” So then, what is true happiness, and how can we achieve it?

When I asked my therapist what happiness means, she wisely said, “happiness is when your expectations meet reality.”

This was not the answer I was expecting. I was sure she would say something flowery like ‘happiness is when you feel at peace with yourself,’ or ‘when you are surrounded by the people you love.’ Whilst these answers are valid, what I loved about her response, was that instead of dancing around happiness, she defined and boxed what happiness is. When internalising such a straightforward definition of happiness, I realised I am happy sometimes, and other times not as much.

This definition hit me and was an authentic light bulb moment; I could finally comprehend happiness. I am the one who decides and sets my expectations. It is up to me to ask myself whether these expectations are realistic. It is up to ME to set myself up for happiness or not.

But, I still wanted to investigate happiness on a deeper level. As a Chassidic Jew, I had to see what the Tanya had to say. First published in 1796, the Tanya is an early work of Chasidic philosophy by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), also known as the Ba’al Hatanya and founder of the Chabad movement. In Chapter 31, the Ba’al Hatanya writes, “Let his divine soul be more precious to him than his loathsome body… without letting the sadness on account of his body interfere with or disturb the joy of the soul.” Though a bit esoteric, abstract and how I would coin it ‘intense,’ the Tanya explains that the only way to attain true happiness is to realise one’s true essence.

Exercise: Think of three top adjectives to describe yourself. Some of the words you may be thinking could be based on your appearance or personality. Then ask yourself, are these adjectives wavering? Are you defining yourself based on your physical self or spiritual self?

When we live our lives with the pursuit of chasing materialism, this will never be enough to make us truly happy. In the world that we live in today, everything is surrounded by pleasing oneself, negating that there is more to life than just you. However, suppose one lives their life with the approach that they are here in this physical world for a higher mission than they would associate themselves not with their physical body but their divine soul. For those who may not believe in things such as souls, it could be that you are living your life for something more than just yourself. My interactions with people who live with this constant understanding that they are here for a higher purpose are authentically content and constantly happy (can you believe that!) Naturally, they are also human – and without a doubt go through trials and tribulations, yet they know it is all from G-d, and ultimately all good. One may know this, but it is entirely different to fully internalise and incorporate, especially when the going gets tough.

This viewpoint of happiness that the Tanya lays out is the ultimate and enduring happiness. Still, it is an attitude that cannot happen overnight and can take years to fully manifest. Therefore, the message that I would like you to take away is “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has…” (Pirkei Avot/ Ethics of our Forefathers 4:1). Our sages could not have said it better. You are the one who sets the bar of expectations. You also have to be reasonable; you may not be able to afford that fancy restaurant or trip away, so don’t have that in your expectations. Of course, easier said than done, yet part of the self-growth journey is learning to care less what others think, and more importantly, to NOT look at others to determine YOUR happiness. Happiness is a PERSONAL profound journey, as is the journey of life.

So, are you happy?

About the Author
Born and raised in the heart of Melbourne's Jewish Community, Chavi now resides in Sydney (Bondi) with her husband Ezry, and works as a Jewish Studies Educator at Moriah College. Currently studying a double degree, majoring in history and philosophy, Chavi is passionate about the Chassidic masters and the mystical teachings of the Torah.
Related Topics
Related Posts