Joshua Goldhirsch, Melbourne, Australia
Essays 2019 / Joy and Happiness

Dennis Prager, the well-known American radio host, has written a book entitled “Happiness is a serious problem”, and in it, as well as on his radio show “the happiness hour”, he contends that we have a moral obligation, to our family, friends and community, to act happy and behave like we are happy, even if we might not feel happy.

The obvious question is – can a person just be happy? Given that happiness is an emotion, what if you don’t feel happy? What if you are facing some seemingly insurmountable challenge in your life or feeling depressed or over-whelmed? Surely you can’t be happy at all times and in all situations, or can you?

This essay will demonstrate that by implementing the Chassidic approach to happiness, in Hebrew “simcha”, then you can truly be and feel happy, and not just “act happy”, no matter what the challenge or circumstance.

To understand happiness, we must begin at one of the core principles of Chassidic thought, namely divine providence, or “hashgacha pratis”. Divine providence means that “there are no accidents in life” – every single thing that happens in this world comes directly from G-d, who is the essence of good. Accordingly, you should be in a perpetual state of happiness, knowing that everything that is happening is G-dly ordained and planned.

The difficulty is what occurs when life throws you “curve-balls” and things appear to be the opposite of good. The Alter Rebbe[1] explains in Igeret Hakodesh[2] that if you truly believe that everything is from G-d, the benevolent Creator who is constantly creating the world, then really there is no bad, and whatever predicament you finds yourself in, G-d is with you. Accordingly, you should be “happy and joyous at all times, and truly live by your faith in G-d”[3].

However, some might contend that this is a lofty level of faith for the lucky chosen few. What about those who have not yet reached this level, and are sometimes plagued by doubts, questions or uncertainties. How do they find true happiness?

In 1801, in a Chassidic discourse[4], the Alter Rebbe elaborates on something truly profound, and demonstrates how Chassidus is often counter-intuitive, namely the opposite approach to what you would think or what the world tells you is right. He begins by saying that many believe that happiness results from feelings of self-worth or self-importance. They think that if they are successful, or rich, or beautiful, or powerful, then they will be happy. Alternatively, they connect their happiness to their achievements, social acceptance or having a good time.

The Alter Rebbe says that the truth is the opposite, and the only way to be truly happy is through having humility, otherwise known as “bittul”. It seems that those focusing on themselves, their personal accomplishments or looking for the next rush are suffering from an “I” infection, and will never be truly satisfied. By its very nature, material pleasures are virtually impossible to quench, as our Sages state “those that have 100 desire 200, those that have 200 desire 400”[5], so true happiness can’t result this way.

The question is, what is humility, and how do you acquire it. He explains that it is all about a perspective on life, or in other words, humility and the resultant happiness comes from within. If you realise that the truth is you deserve nothing, and everything you have, including your very life and existence, is a gift from God, then you will take nothing for granted and be truly happy. In addition, the only reason you don’t fail is because Hashem is watching over you and protecting you.

The Torah teaches us that Moses was “a very humble man – more humble than anyone else on the face of this earth”[6], and perhaps we could argue he was also the happiest, having mastered this perspective of humility, and the realisation that everything granted to him was a gift.

Often people suffer from disappointments and challenges when either they have a certain expectation that doesn’t eventuate, or alternatively they have a sense of entitlement to something and they don’t get what they feel they deserve. The Alter Rebbe suggests that you remove the expressions “expectation” and “sense of entitlement” from your vocabulary. Everything from G-d is a gift, and everyone is given exactly what they deserve, and if you can view life in this way, then that is the secret to happiness which can be easily maintained.

Of course, living life in the 21st century without any expectations or feelings of entitlement, even on the most basic level, might be for some a challenge. Fast forward 185 years, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe (“the Rebbe”) said a Chassidic discourse[7] which adds a whole new dimension in the approach to happiness.

The Rebbe quotes the famous story of a chassid whose son became ill, and the doctors had given up hope for his recovery. This chassid travelled over 1,600 km to the Tzemach Tzedek[8], and poured out his heart in anguish, concerned that his son may no longer be alive. The Tzemach Tzedek responded with five key words in Yiddish, “Tracht gut vet zein gut”, which literally means “think good, and it will be good”. The child survived the illness and was still alive many years later when the Friedeker Rebbe[9] retold this story on Simchat Torah in 1926.

The Rebbe says that this adage, “think positive and the outcome will be good” is both a promise and a directive. The days of bitterness and remorse associated with repentance are a thing of the past, and today everything must be done with joy and a positive outlook. A person needs to always remember that he is in good hands, and that everything granted to him is an expression of G-d’s kindness[10] and every single situation must be viewed positively. He does say that to achieve this positive outlook is an “avodah gedolah” or intense toil is required. In other words, thinking good means working on yourself to the point where you know and feel that there will be a positive outcome.

The obvious question is, how can your thoughts influence what is going to happen in life? The Rebbe explains elsewhere [11] that it is possible when you take the attitude set out in Psalms to “throw your burden unto Hashem”[12]. By having absolute trust, in Hebrew “bitachon”, in G-d, this serves as a channel to draw down G-d’s blessings, which makes the outcome positive.

The Rebbe continues in the discourse, and what is true everlasting joy? When you can connect to G-d through studying Torah and fulfilling his commandments. Only then can you truly be happy, as you are a finite being connecting to something infinite.

Combining the Rebbes’ approaches, it would seem that for true happiness, you need to have the following:

  • Humility[13]: you must constantly remember that everything you have is from G-d. It should be noted that true humility doesn’t mean undervaluing yourself, but rather valuing others, and at the same time having the capacity to be open to something greater than yourself[14].
  • No expectations, or at a minimum, no false or unrealistic expectations;
  • No sense of entitlement, or at least no unreasonable sense of entitlement, and instead see everything you have as a gift;
  • Always “think good” and see everything that happens in your life from a positive perspective. At the same time, try and develop a level of trust in G-d while thinking positive, and this will ensure your happiness in every situation.

There also maybe a fifth step in your search for happiness, although it could be categorised as a component of “thinking good”. The Talmud states that “there is no greater than joy than the resolution of doubt”. Manis Friedman, the Chabad shliach and educator in Minnesota, argues that the way to achieve happiness is not to focus on your doubts at all[15], but instead direct your attention to things that you know for sure.  In other words, clarity and certainty is something which brings a great sense of happiness, and so it is critical that when you are thinking positive you avoid focusing on your doubts or uncertainties.

We say in Psalms that we need to “serve G-d with joy”[16] and it is a well-known Chassidic concept that happiness “breaks through all barriers”. I know that for myself, this Chassidic perspective on happiness has had a significant positive impact on life, and I hope that it will assist others in finding true and enduring happiness in their lives.

[1] The first Lubavitcher Rebbe

[2] Chapter 11 of Igeret Hakodesh, the fourth part of Tanya.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ויספו הענווים בה” שמחה, which is contained inמאמרי אדמו”ר הזקן תקס”ב כרך א , page 51.

[5] Koheles Rabbah 1:34, Ramban and Bechaye at the end of Parshas Chayei Sarah.

[6] Book of Bamidbar, Parshas Beha’aloscha, 12:3

[7] מרגלא בפומיה דרבא , which was said שבת פרשת וישלח, י”ז כסלו תשמ”ו. It has been translated into English by R Eliyahu Touger in the book “Breaking through Barriers”, published by Sichos in English.

[8] The Third Lubavitcher Rebbe

[9] The Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe

[10] See Likkutei Sichos, volume 1, page 175,

[11] See Likkutei Sichos, volume 38, page 1-6, on Parshas Shmos

[12] Tehillim, chapter 55, line 23, in Hebrewהשלך על ה” יהבך

[13] See also the Rebbe’s Chassidic discourse on the importance of humility in order to have happiness, תורת מנחם מלוקט כ מרחשון תשמ”א דף רפ”ב

[14] Article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Chabad.org entitled “On Humility”

[15] Speech by Manis Friedman entitled “Don’t worry, be happy” on Torahcafe.com

[16] Tehillim, chapter 100, line 2, in Hebrew עבדו את ה” בשמחה