David Burstein July 2010
There is a joke about a Jewish man who goes for a job as a radio announcer. When he returned home from the interview, his mother asks him if he got the job. With a disappointed look, he shakes his head. His mother then asked him “Do you know why you did not get the job? The man nods. The mother said “Why? The man answered “AAAAnnntttiii-Semitism.
Honest self assessment is not easy for any of us. Our most intimate relationship is with ourselves. Maybe it is too difficult to step outside because we do not know how to deal with the shortcomings we will discover. But to take responsibility for ones life means being able to recognize that our biggest battle in life is with oneself.
Dennis Prager’s “Happiness is a Serious Problem deals with this. His basic contention is that the key to happiness is to understand that human nature is not inherently good, and in many ways works against our ability to become happy. Our happiness comes from our mind, not our brain nor body.
While the authors of the US Constitution framed the document from the perspective that governments cannot be oppressive, they understood that it was the pursuit of happiness that was a God given right. If we do not pursue it correctly there is only so much we can blame on people in positions of power over us.
A lot of people, be it on a macro and micro level, are angry and unhappy.
There is nothing wrong with anger or unhappiness. Something is not right. The world is flawed. As with all of our emotions, it is a matter of its justification, the amount and if it is directed properly. While the cause of some anger may be a result of outside sources, sometimes the amount of anger is so out of proportion that there must be a displacement of an internal conflict.
Just because someone feels something does not make it true. Is it a frustration because they cannot get what they want when they want it? Is it that one has a sense of entitlement and idealistic expectations? Or can it be that when a lot of people have been conditioned to think what will make them happy does not occur, that instead of dealing with the personal dissonance, they blame someone else?
A lot of these thoughts have been prompted by witnessing the aftermath of the flotilla incident in the Middle East. The venomous hatred dripping at Israel is so beyond the pale, that you sense the antisemitism is coming from a deep pathological source.
Israel is perceived as powerful and a symbol of Western civilization, which is hated by Leftists and the Arab/Muslim world. It is an imperfect democracy. When Israel does anything that confronts those who wish Israel did not exist, the enemies are “outraged.”
It is very easy to sound smart and make for good media snippets when all you have to do is criticize. But it is the follow-up “What are you going to do about it?” that is more important. When the haters of Israel say that Israel should be destroyed, the problem is with the haters that they have to look at themselves as a source for the anger.
If people spent the same amount of time with self examination as they did in complaining about others, the world would be a better place. Imagine the benefits to the Muslim/Arab world if they took one-tenth of the energy they expended in hating Israel, and actually fostered some admiration.
Whether macro or micro the passion behind the anger is so great you just want to scream at a person “What exactly is your problem?” Or as one friend challenged me many years ago “Jeez, David, when was the last time you had sex? ” All kidding aside, having vehicles to relieve our frustrations is very important. I have often thought that part of the anger/frustration emanating from young Islamists does emanate from a sexual/mysogenic origin. With Leftists, I’d like to ask about their relationship with their parents and grandparents.
Prager’s other challenge in the book is that we have a moral obligation to be as happy as possible. When you think of evil people you generally do not think of them as being happy.
Just as we do not want to be subjected to anyones second hand smoke, why should we have to put up with their unhappiness.
Goodness and excellence in any field does not just happen. Neither does happiness. The pursuit of happiness is a skill as any other. Happiness will not come to us if we do not move towards it.
Even though happiness may be pursued, it is actually achieved as a bi-product of the actions. While some are be born with happier dispositions, we should be obliged to approach happiness in a deliberate manner. The pursuit of happiness should have been part of a life skills course taught in high school.
The skill of becoming a happy person requires, amongst others, a professional and religious approach.
If being paid for a skill is how you define a professional, with happiness the reward is in the doing.
An aspect of what makes anyone a “professional is the commitment to a skill that demands critical and fair self-evaluation. We must always try to get better. There are objective standards of knowledge and behavior that must be met, regardless of how we feel. Two simple personal concepts that have been taught about our behaviors is to ask “Will the product of this behavior last? and “If this action were to be repeated a million times would the world be a better/happier place?
In our professional life we strive to be, in the words of Abraham Maslow, unconsciously competent. That means we have had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). If someone were to ask us about happiness, the answer should be “I guess I am but I am too busy to think about it.” Few of us reach this stage.
Prager has long noted that gratitude is indispensable for happiness.
I have lived a secular Jewish life. But I see at least three behaviors in Judaism which are templates for happiness: Daily prayer, the Sabbath, and the month of Elul prior to the High Holidays.
1) Daily prayer: The word to pray in Hebrew is “L’hitpalel” which means to examine oneself. Many of the prayers are expressions of gratitude for the things we have in life that are not the result of our own doing.
2) Sabbath: For 25 hours a week you give thanks to God for the creation of the world and giving us freedom. I have heard that in some Jewish homes the Shabbat dinner has a “No kvetching” rule.
3) Just as someone is supposed to prepare for a test, if you do the right preparation, the actual test is easy.
The month of Elul which is prior to Rosh Hashanah is a time of serious reflection. We are obliged to ask forgiveness of others for our unethical behavior before we ask for it from God. How about making it a time in reflecting on our happiness. As we may think we are entitled to it, we are ultimately responsible for our own happiness. How have we undermined ourselves from becoming happier? Are our markers for happiness correct? Do we have proper perspective? How has our nature undermined us? Can we forgive ourselves for not achieving all we hoped for?
And while we cannot make anyone else happy, what have we done all we can do is to provide an environment so that someone can find it for themselves. Have we asked them for forgiveness for not doing so.
A component of happiness is realized in living to ones potential or helping another reach theirs. It is part of a professional and religious philosophy of life. Doing good is a source of happiness.
As much as our own success, my father taught me that a true friend is one who can revel in the success of another. When we know we have been an active part of that achievement, we have also discovered a vehicle to happiness.
These skills and mechanisms for happiness may not exist in angry people and cultures. They simply do not get it about being ethically responsible grown ups. It becomes a greater problem when they cannot even recognize it or admit the need to seek professional help.
Thank you for reading this. Please remember that this piece was written with no degree of sanctimony. Your feedback is always appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.