Happiness vs. Meaning

Rabbi Eli Freedman: Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

This past spring, we had the unique opportunity to host Anat Hoffman, a civil rights pioneer in Israel. Through her organizations, Women of the Wall and the Israeli Religious Action Center, Hoffman works to protect the rights of women, Reform Jews, Arabs and other vulnerable populations. Hoffman does not shy away from exposing Israel’s tough truths, and believes that we can love the country even more when we recognize that, like all of us, Israel is not perfect.

During the question and answer portion of the evening, in response to a question about the difficulties of making aliyah and living in Israel, Hoffman paused for a moment and began her answer by quoting our Declaration of Independence. Perhaps seeking to agitate the hometown crowd, Hoffman said, “I’m don’t really like the whole ‘pursuit of happiness’ thing, I’m more interested in the ‘pursuit of meaning.” Hoffman then went on to challenge the audience. “If you want a life of just happiness,” she said, “don’t move to Israel. Stay in the US. Your life will be easier. But if you want a life of meaning, make aliyah and work to make Israel a better place.”

Anat Hoffman posed an essential question to all of us for this Yom Kippur: what are we pursuing in our lives: happiness or meaning?

In surveys, most people list happiness as their top value. One study says that last year 45% of Americans’ New Year’s Resolutions were related to living a happier life. However, according to research, the happy life and the meaningful life differ and that the surest path to true happiness lies in chasing not just happiness but also a meaningful life.

In one study by Veronika Huta and Richard Ryan, college students were asked to pursue either meaning or happiness over ten days by doing at least one thing each day to increase meaning or happiness. Some of the most popular activities reported by people in the meaning group included forgiving a friend, studying, and helping or cheering up another person. Those in the happiness group listed activities like sleeping in, playing games, and eating candy.

Although the students in the happiness group experienced more positive feelings and fewer negative ones immediately after the study, three months later their mood boost had faded. The students focused on meaning, meanwhile, did not feel as happy right after the experiment, which makes sense: meaningful pursuits, like helping a friend, require sacrifice and effort, and can even be painful in the moment. Yet three months later, the picture was different. The students who had pursued meaning said they felt more “enriched,” “inspired,” and “part of something greater than myself.” They also reported fewer negative moods. Over the long term, it seemed, pursuing meaning was more deeply satisfying than chasing happiness. Or as Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something.”

This idea should not sounds so radical – it has been central to our Jewish tradition for thousands of years. In her book, “Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge, and Well-Being,” Hava Tirosh-Samuelson makes the case that Judaism has always been a religion focused on happiness. And, like those recent studies, happiness is not defined by brief moments of pleasure, but rather by living a good life. Tirosh-Samuelson writes:

In Judaism happiness does not mean possessing material goods, having fun, feeling content, or enjoying physical pleasures, although some of these elements may be a part of the happy life. Happiness is not a subjective feeling manifested in a given moment or for a short period of time.

Happiness is not found in a given moment, it is found in a life well-lived; a life of meaning.

Our sages teach as soon as the fast of Yom Kippur concludes, pound the first nail into the sukkah. Ok, maybe get a quick bite to eat first, then pound the first nail into the sukkah. It is not by coincidence that the holiday of Sukkot, called Z’man Simchateinu – the season of our rejoicing, falls immediately after Yom Kippur. Throughout the long day of Yom Kippur, we search our lives for meaning, and then we are taught that on Sukkot, “v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameach – we should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but happiness.”

The message is clear – find meaning, and then happiness will ensue.

On Sukkot, we read the biblical book, Kohelet, or in English, Ecclesiastes. Perhaps the rabbis associated Kohelet with our season of rejoicing because of its focus on the search for meaning and happiness. Kohelet, traditionally ascribed to King Solomon in his old age, spends the first eight chapters exploring dead ends – the paths that do not bring meaning to our lives.

When he was young, Solomon thought focusing on himself and his own self-interest will bring meaning but of course, in time he finds that pursuit meaningless. In reaction he explores the extreme opposite of renouncing all bodily pleasure; but again to no avail. Solomon pursues wisdom; but again, in the words of the king, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Another dead end. He then focuses on religious piety – as much as I’d like to say this one worked – nope, Solomon is still searching. Lastly, the king tries eschewing all feelings in order to avoid pain but realizes this too does little to give his life purpose.

It is not until the ninth chapter, after fully exploring all the other options, that the old king comes to a quite simple conclusion. The answer is: כל אשר תמצא ידך לעשות בכחך עשה

Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might. (9:10)

If you work in healthcare with knowledge and power to heal people, do it with all your might. If you are an artist with the power to inspire people and bring beauty into this world, do it with all your might. If you cook delicious food that brings joy and comfort to people’s lives, do it with all your might. If you are a good listener and are able to be present with loved ones when they need you, do it with all your might.

Remember the scene in the movie City Slickers where Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch, is alone with Curly, played by Jack Palance. Curly is giving Mitch some life advice.

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

[holds up one finger] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean squat.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.

One person who truly understood this message was author, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. While in imprisoned in Theresienstadt, he established mental health care services and organized a unit to help camp newcomers overcome shock and grief. Through his experience in the camps, Frankl discovered the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living.

In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl writes:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.

Frankl continues:

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”

Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.

I am not talking about grandiose gestures. You don’t need to raise millions of dollars for charity or save thousands of lives. Everyday actions, that are in our power to do, do them with all your might and we can make a difference in the world.

Rabbi Evan Moffic, in his recent book, “The Happiness Prayer,” explores meaning through the prayer, Eilu D’varim. The prayer, which Moffic believes holds the secret to a meaningful and therefore happy life, lists a series of very ordinary actions that we can all do – with all of our might:

Honoring parents; doing acts of lovingkindness; arriving at the house of study early–morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the wedding couple; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another.

Remember the study on meaning and happiness by Huta and Ryan? I find it interesting that some of the most popular activities reported by people in the ‘meaning group’ included forgiving a friend, studying, and helping or cheering up another person. All tasks laid out in the ‘happiness prayer,’ Eilu D’varim.

As Rabbi Moffic points out, there is nothing extraordinary about any of these mitzvot:

But when we follow this path, when we commit to living with intention and discernment, we learn that happiness does not come from ease. It does not come from getting whatever we want whenever we want. It comes from meaning. It comes from doing things that make a difference. It comes from knowing we are here for a reason.

Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.

There is a story told of a factory that had a problem of employee theft. Valuable items were being stolen every day. So they hired a security firm to search all the employee as they left at the end of the day. Most of the workers willingly went along with emptying their pockets and having their lunch boxes checked. But one man would go through the gate every day at closing time with a wheelbarrow full of trash, and the exasperated security guard would have to spend a half-hour, when everyone else was on their way home, digging though the food wrappers, cigarette butts, and Styrofoam cups to see if anything valuable was being smuggled out. She never found anything. Finally one day, the guard could no longer stand it. The guard then said to the worker, “Look, I know you’re up to something but every day I check every last bit of trash in the wheelbarrow and I never find anything worth stealing. It’s driving me crazy. Tell me what you’re up to and I promise not to report you.” The worker shrugged and said, “It’s simple. I’m stealing wheelbarrows.”

Like the security guard looking through the trash in the wheelbarrow for something of value and all the while missing the obvious answer, how easy it is to search our days, our years, looking for the reward, for the success that will make our lives worthwhile. We totally misunderstand what it means to be alive when we think of our lives as time we can use in search of rewards and pleasures. When we have learned how to live, life itself is the reward. When we figure out that one thing.

Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.

I agree with Anat Hoffman. Our goal in life can not just be happiness. Our goal should be meaningfulness. And if happiness should ensue, wonderful. But if not, that’s ok as well, because we will leave this world knowing that we did our best. That we brought our whole selves to all that we did.

This Yom Kippur, and in this New Year, may we pursue meaning. May we take to heart the words of Kohelet, “Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.”

Mark Twain once wrote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

May we find out why, find our one thing, and do it with all our might.