The Dynamics of Happiness

By Rafi Chemel, Toronto, ON
Essays 2017 / Finalists

MyLife Essay Contest 2017

The current age seems to be fraught with a strange paradox. On the one hand, never before has there been such an abundance of material wealth, prosperity, technological development and medical breakthrough. To put it simply, life is better than it has ever been. Yet simultaneously, the rate of depression and unhappiness is higher than ever, especially among youth. The Harris Poll Happiness Index reports that as of 2016, American happiness is at an all-time low, with only 31% of those polled being labeled as ‘very happy’. Why is that? Why are people still unhappy, despite living lives that their ancestors never dreamed of living? Perhaps we are missing some sort of integral piece in our quest for happiness. But what can this age be lacking that previous ones did not?

This essay will shed light on the above questions, primarily based off a short and concise Maamar of the Alter Rebbe – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi – under the title ‘Simcha‘ -Happiness. This essay will explain a section of the Maamar, as well as the Chassidic concept of the duality of human nature. Based off this, the essay will offer an explanation as to why those living in our age and culture are more prone to unhappiness, and offer solutions to help counter this problem.

I. Understanding Happiness
The word ‘happiness’ is thrown around very often. People use it to describe an innumerable amount of situations. In fact, during a recent advertising campaign, Coca-Cola used the catchphrase ‘open happiness’ to describe the feeling that occurs when enjoying their product. For the purpose of our discussion, we will zero in on one specific definition the Merriam Webster dictionary provides for happiness – ‘a state of well being and contentment’. This is a description of an overall feeling, not a specific one. Sure, specific experiences can help mold this feeling, but the feeling is one that encapsulates the person’s life in general. Thus, according to this definition, asking oneself “Am I happy?” is comparable to asking “With regards to life in general, without getting into specifics, am I content or not?”

This feeling needs to be understood with more clarity. How can we predict whether this feeling will be felt or not in a specific situation? In other words, what is this feeling a result of, and what prompts this feeling? In one of his earlier chassidic discourses known as Ketzarim , the Alter Rebbe devotes himself [1] to explaining the concept of Happiness at its most fundamental level. The Alter Rebbe begins [2] by stating that on an abstract level, every living being has an ingrained state of happiness. No matter what kind of living creature it is, whether it be vegetative, animal or human, every creature was created to naturally be in a state of happiness,well being, and contentment. To put it simply, happiness is not an acquired feeling, but rather a natural one built into the genetic makeup of every creature. The only question is how to ‘tap into it’ and access this feeling.

The Alter Rebbe explains that this feeling can be accessed when the creature is found in its roots. In simple terms, this would refer to the creature’s natural habitat. When a creature is found in its natural habitat, it will naturally be happy. Thus, the way to access this feeling is by allowing the given being to be in its natural state, its true self. If the creature senses that it is not in touch with its true self, it is not able to truly experience happiness.

II. Understanding The Human
According to aforementioned understanding of what happiness is an outcome of, we now need to understand what the human’s ‘natural habitat’ is. As such, the Alter Rebbe continues to point out a fundamental difference between animals and humans with regards to their psychological makeup. The difference is as follows: Animals operate on one frequency so to speak. With regards to their creation, the Torah says that the moment G-d spoke, they were created as living creatures. There were no two factors involved in their existence. Thus, they are naturally happy when found in their natural habitat. They are simply self serving animals, nothing more, nothing less. The more opportunity they have to be self serving and animalistic, the happier they are. Humans, however, are governed by a completely different set of rules. We do not, as many mistakenly believe, have one singular drive that governs us.

When making man, the Torah tells us that G-d first designed the body of Adam in its full form, out of dirt and mud. Only afterwards did G-d blow the ‘spirit of life’ into him. Similarly, Solomon expressed this dual nature when he stated that, “… The spirit of man ascends upwards and the spirit of the animal descends below to the earth.” (Koheles 3:21). Chassidic thought understands this to be referring to the idea that within man himself, these spirits exist..

From our very inception, we have had built within our psyche two drives, the bodily drive and the spiritual drive. Or more accurately, two distinct souls, each with their own personality, identity, and will. Once we have an adequate picture of these two souls, and what they consider to be their natural element, we will be able to pinpoint the ‘missing link’ in today’s society. Let us have a closer look at each of these two souls [3].

III. Understanding the Animalistic Soul
The animalistic soul is, just as its name implies, an animal. An animal is interested in self preservation, and is thus motivated by whatever it feels is beneficial to serving the ‘self’. True, the ‘human animal’ is more complex than the regular animal, as it possesses the understanding to realize what is beneficial for itself more so than the animal. The underlying motive, however, is the same, and that is ‘self’. Naturally, it will be pulled towards the physical, for it is within the physical that the animal feels the most ‘self’. Consequently, the animal is emotional by nature, for emotions are an embodiment of the notion that, ‘I exist and my perception is real’.

The thrill and pleasure we find in eating, drinking, sexual behaviour, accomplishment, respect, and acquisition are all clearly in the realm of the animalistic soul, for it finds within these things the underlying sense of self. Even noble pursuits such as charity, work ethic, and learning, when done with the underlying motive of ‘this will make me greater and better’, are motivated by the animalistic soul. This soul can even be very kind and giving, so long as it understands that this will ultimately be for its benefit. So long as the animalistic soul feels ‘self’ and independent identity, it is happy, for it has found its place and natural habitat.

We now understand that there is an integral part of every human that is searching for self preservation, self aggrandizement, self gratification, and just about anything else that has to do with self. This is, naturally, the strongest force that every person senses, and is clearly a deeply felt drive within us. However, this soul is only half of the picture. There is an entire other soul within every human known as the G-dly soul.

IV. Understanding The G-dly Soul
The G-dly soul is the polar opposite of the animal soul. While the animal soul is motivated by [4] ‘self’, the G-dly soul is motivated by ‘selfless’. Its natural state is to be removed from the self and reach for higher, for the absolute truth and ultimately for God Himself. Therefore, as opposed to being impulsive, self serving, and wild, this soul is deep, selfless, and tame. It is thus entirely uninterested in self serving pursuits and pleasures. The only thing it desires is to connect the G-dly source where it originates. It does not want to exist as an independent identity. Rather, it wants to be nullified and nonexistent, swallowed up within its true identity of G-d Himself [5].

Therefore, self serving pleasures and goals will not only fail to satisfy this soul, they will make it feel more removed from its source! In other words, for this soul, the pursuit of happiness is actually inherently flawed, for the person is looking for things that make him happy and him satisfied, while the G-dly soul is completely uninterested in anything connected to ‘him’, the independent identity of the human.

Where the G-dly soul does find its place, is in acts of devotion to what it knows to be true, proper, and right,which is ultimately G-d Himself. This will result in acts of selflessness for G-d and as a result for a fellow person. Although this nature within man is quieter and thus harder to detect, it is closer to his real core. This is the true human within man. This is what separates him from the animal.

We can now appreciate what the Alter Rebbe is saying in the above mentioned maamar. He continues : ”by a human which it says regarding him “who knows the spirit of man which ascends upwards and the spirit of the animal which descends to below”, it is thus possible that the human aspect of him can be stuck within the prison of the body…. ” The notion of being ‘stuck within the prison of the body’ is well understood according to what we have previously explained. It is entirely possible for a person to lead a life in which he constantly indulges in every conceivable pleasure, with no holds barred, and yet feel completely depressed. This is because a lifestyle like this will inevitably cause a person to feel removed from his true self- his G-dly soul [6]. It is therefore little wonder that in today’s society, and in America especially, there are so many who are unhappy. Our society promotes self indulgence, gratification, and ego. “Do as your heart desires”, “whatever makes you feel good”, and “go wild”, are all common catchphrases in the American lexicon. Needless to say, these notions are far removed from the G-dly soul.

Perhaps that is why specifically in our generation and culture, with all the indulgences available, there are so many who feel that they are not in a state of well being and contentment. They are not. There is an entire soul within them that feels removed from its natural habitat. The youth, known as the ‘iGeneration’, are predisposed to this especially. Or in the words of the Alter Rebbe, “by a man who is totally consumed by the ‘I’ then he will [Inevitably] be more depressed. for the greater he feels himself, or the lower he lies [with regards to indulgence] then this thing [ie. his G-dly soul] will be more depressed.”

V. Applying Our Understanding
Many people unfortunately view their lives only from the perspective of their animalistic soul. As a result, they are constantly plagued by the questions of “What is in this for me?” or “How do I benefit from this?”. They feel that spiritual pursuits are nothing more than burdensome. This is, in fact, an extremely unhealthy attitude to have. Not only does it lead a person to act in a potentially selfish way, it also entirely undermines the desires of his G-dly soul. His G-dly soul would feel much more in touch with its roots if it were able to entirely throw itself into doing what is right. Consider the following situation to illustrate this point: A person is driving down a snow covered road, on the his home from a long day at work. Needless to say, he cannot wait to get home for dinner. As he is driving, he notices someone attempting to shovel around his car which has gotten stuck in the snow. The man shovelling does not have a shovel, and is using his bare hands instead. Upon getting closer, the man driving realizes that the person stuck is none other than an old classmate from high school, one who made those four years a living nightmare. The animalistic soul within him begins to think “Ha! Serves this man right! If I wasn’t so hungry I’d consider staying just to watch him shiver in the cold.” One with a more passive animalistic soul may think “I do not owe this man anything. I have gotten over my high school issues and hold nothing against him. However, there is absolutely nothing to gain from helping him. These kind of things always happen, he’ll get over it.” Meanwhile, the G-dly soul within him is thinking as follows, “Here is another human being. I know I don’t owe him anything, but that does not matter. G-d has obviously placed me in this situation in order to help him.” Using an opportunity such as this to help his G-dly soul express itself would surely help it feel more in touch with its natural habitat.

I’m sure many readers feel as though they follow the animalistic soul at times, while following the G-dly soul in other instances. This is normal. We are human. Chassidus is replete with methods on how to harness or quiet the animalistic soul. However, after all is said and done, the more we let our true human side, our G-dly soul, feel in touch with its source, the happier we will be…naturally.


Sources and Footnotes
See Hayom Yom 15 Sivan
2 Mamorei Admur Hazaken Haketzorim pg. 553.  In fact being that these early discourses are very short, many of them don’t have their own title and jump straight to the point. They are therefore arranged alphabetically according to their content. This discourse is under the subject happiness .
3 Needless to say, due to the constraints of this essay, the following will only be an elementary understanding of this idea. For a more in depth understanding of the G-dly soul, the animalistic soul and the concept of the intellectual soul see Tanya chapters 1-3,6,and 9. Sefer Hamamorim 5670 pgs. 147-173 Sefer Hamamorim 5700 pgs. 92-98, Sefer Hamamorim 5702 pgs. 104-109 Likutei Sichos vol. XV pgs. 58-62.
4 Although the G-dly soul is uniquely imbued to jews, The non- Jewish counterpart would be something called the intellectual soul or logical soul. While there are technically differences, with regards to what this essay will be focusing on , they share similar qualities (albeit for different reasons) . See Likutei Sichos vl. XV pgs. 58-62 as well as vl. VI pgs. 111-113.
5 Chassidic thought compares this nature to that of a flame, which constantly strives upwards yet the moment it succeeds in doing that, it will disconnect from the wick and vanish into nothingness. Yet that is its nature.
6 Sefer Hamamorim 5700 pg. 153