Happiness isn’t just the smiley face emoji. Not even Laurie Hernandez mimicking the smiley face emoji. In fact it’s far from it. While it might seem like a silly question, perhaps “What is happiness and how do we find it?” is one of the toughest ones to answer. And maybe there isn’t just one answer. But it’s definitely hard to find.
In a Jewish seminar about happiness that I went to at my college, the Rabbi shared with us a frightening statistic: while murders have decreased nationally to a 51-year low of 4.5 for every 100,000 people, depression and suicide have increased. This is even more shocking given many of the greater freedoms we have today and the quality of life many of us enjoy. The Rabbi said, “We have life, we have liberty, but America’s been in the pursuit of happiness for 250 years and we still haven’t found it”. I can’t help but question why.
Humans are an interesting species. We’re the only ones who have a concept of time and it seems almost vital to our survival that we find meaning. A Holocaust survivor and psychologist, Viktor Frankl, wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning a radical yet profound truth that he realized from his time in Auschwitz: circumstance and surroundings do not determine happiness. This man, set in the worst possible circumstances with no family and friends and a brutal quality of life, surrounded by Nazis who only wanted him to give himself up to the magnetic monster called depression and crowds of people who had succumbed to the pressure, CHOSE to be happy. Similarly, though to not as drastic an extent, my friend’s 96 year-old grandmother named Janice recently passed. While it has been psychologically proven that older folks are often bitter and lose their sense of meaning of life, her grandmother, like Frankl, chose happiness despite her age. She “did her face [makeup]”, played cards, and spent time with family, passing away over lunch. It’s not that she’s the epitome of a perfect human life and that all people have to be exactly like her, but Janice is a real, human example of that kind of person that I know I want to be, someone who can remain positive and happy regardless of circumstance.
It’s hard to be that seemingly perfect, positive, pleasureful person, though. The Rabbi told us that to achieve happiness, one should follow the 3 F’s: friends, family, and faith. He suggested that each should “Acquire for yourself a friend”. Not “make”. Not “find”. Acquire. The word suggests that friendship isn’t just something of leisure, but rather a vital necessity to combat the horrible depression and suicide statistic and prevent yourself from being a part of it. Antidepressant drugs cannot tackle the root of depression; they only create addiction. But happiness, true, pure happiness from friendship can remediate it at its core. Additionally, strong family ties and faith can help generate happiness. It’s the feeling of community and support which can really save lives. In fact, after showing us charts about the correlation between faith, comfortable though not necessarily excessive wealth, countries, and other factors with happiness, the Rabbi told us that the happiest person in America is a converted observant Jewish 5’ 10” Asian-American senior citizen in Hawaii. Life goals.
Another subject we discussed in the seminar was the concept of pain and pleasure. The Rabbi asked us if it was possible to feel both pain and pleasure, to which one girl answered that a triathlon satisfies both conditions. The opposite of pain and pleasure, he asserted, is being comfortable, is watching the triathlon or football game on TV while you’re lounging on the couch. This strive for both pain and pleasure, straying from what’s comfortable and finding meaning through it, can help us in our individual pursuit of happiness, too.
In our conversation on happiness, I wondered something. Viktor Frankl chose to be happy in the darkest time and he was able to know true joy because he was able to know despair. I’m a well-to-do, white American Jewish girl from New Hampshire who hasn’t had to deal with the tough times that Frankl or “little orphan Annie” have faced. I feel as though if I had experienced greater grief, then I would know greater joy. What’s so paradoxical about this concept is that when we struggle, we hope and try to raise our kids without that same struggle. But will that then prevent them from knowing the meaning of happiness? Since I am fortunate to have so many privileges, it’s not just my goal, but my duty to use them in a way that benefits others. Though I can’t help but wonder what life would be like if the tables were turned.
This entire piece might just be nothing more than a rambling sequence of my deep and confusing thoughts, but I wanted to end with an analogy that sums up my aim with this. The Rabbi told us a story of 2 mice who fell into a bucket of milk. One mouse gave up on trying to survive and became part of the suicide statistic the plagues the world. Yet the other chose to struggle, to kick his legs, and with every passing minute, he just told himself that it would be just one more. Eventually, his legs had churned the milk to butter, and he was able to walk on it and get out alive.We can’t always choose our surroundings and circumstances, but we CAN choose happiness and survival. I often stress about an F on a test or having too much homework, and those aren’t invalid concerns. They’re definitely of a lesser magnitude than the grief experienced in the Holocaust or the death of a loved one, but sadness is relative and it’s okay. Yet what really matters is the struggle to get over that grief, to refrain from falling into the pit of depression and be really, truly happy. To be like the little mouse that could and to overcome.