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August 28, 2014 / 2 Elul, 5774
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Why Aren’t Americans Happy?

Friedman-030912

The real question is “What is happiness?” We seem to be a very unhappy generation. Even when we say “This makes me happy”, “I am happy”, “I would be happy if you would do this”, “I will be happy to do that”, do we really mean happiness? Do we even know what happiness feels like?

Happiness comes from gratitude – something in life that demands gratitude would usually make us happy – which in essence makes the question “Where has the gratitude gone?” True gratitude can only come from being unburdened. The weight of being burdened doesn’t allow us to feel gratitude. So what is it that’s burdening us? We are carrying the weight of ourselves, of taking ourselves too seriously. Once we let go, it becomes possible to get in touch with those feelings of gratitude and happiness.

Now, why do we take ourselves so seriously?

Do I deserve?

By the way, the need to speak about happiness means that we’re not happy. If we were really happy we wouldn’t be talking about it. We would just be happy.

One of the reasons we take ourselves so seriously is deservedness. We are told, taught and constantly reminded that we deserve, that we are deserving. Where does this come from? Now, it is a virtue to think of others as deserving. When you see someone suffering you think “No! They deserve better than that”. But I’m not even sure what that means. You wish better for them but deservedness is really an unnatural and unhealthy concept.

In truth it’s not really a natural fact of life. In actuality we are given a hundred years of life for free. We are certainly not born deserving, yet God gives us life. Consequently we are indebted just by being born. However, we are also given a mission and a purpose. Acknowledging that fact gives us the right to ask God to provide us with the proper conditions to fulfill our job. But deservedness has got to go.

God is Good.

So the first thing that drains our happiness is this feeling of I deserve. Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t expect God to give us good things, great success and His great blessings. We certainly do expect it because God is generous and good and He has given us everything until now for free, so He will certainly continue to do so.

The problem starts when we have that feeling of entitlement, a feeling that we deserve. Because this feeling is too self-aware and too judgmental. Once we start trying to figure out “Am I getting as much as I deserve”, “Am I getting less than I deserve”, it becomes burdensome; and if “I’m getting more than I deserve”, that can be worrisome too. So the whole subject is really not worth getting into.

We don’t deserve, but we get because God is good.

Don’t Be Too Attached to the Physical.

One of the first tests that God put the Jews through when they left Egypt was asking them to follow Him in to a desert without giving them a chance to prepare food. The virtue that was tested was the ability to do without, to take our physical existence a little less serious. If we have physical comforts, great, if we don’t have – that’s fine too. He was looking for a sense of indifference, the ability to rise above and transcend the petty needs of the physical.

Unfortunately we are so attached to our physical needs that we have no time to be happy. Things have to be just perfect: the food has to be just so, the temperature has to be just right, we must have enough sleep, a second cup of coffee etc. We can’t function without them. We need to transcend some of that in order to be happy. So, to paraphrase, we need to focus on what we’re here for, and not what were here after.

Our Purpose.

Another thing destroying our happiness is doubt. When we’re not sure, when we are not certain, we can’t proceed with confidence and that takes away our joy.

We’re uncertain about so many things, and the list keeps growing. We’re not even sure if we belong on this planet or not. Are human beings welcome as part of nature? Or are we polluters just messing up the beauty of nature with our very presence?

So why are we here? We must have a particular purpose, a particular function that justifies our presence on this earth.

Not being certain as to what our identity is and what our purpose is, again, drains us of all enthusiasm and joy.

So we need to know clearly what we are here for.

Shame, Regret, Guilt.

The final culprit draining the happiness out of our lives is guilt. We don’t know what to do with it; we don’t know how to handle it.

But let’s be more specific. There are times when are ashamed of our own behavior, we’re embarrassed by our own pettiness, by our own nastiness. That’s not the same as guilt. It’s not even the same as regret. It’s called shame.

Regret is primarily in the brain: “I’m wiser now and had I known then what I know now I would have done better. So I regret the decisions, the actions that I took when I took them.”

Shame is more of a gut feeling: “I’m embarrassed. I’m uncomfortable with myself because of my failings or my weaknesses.”

And then there’s guilt. Guilt means: “I have damaged myself in the eyes of others, I’ve made myself less acceptable or less desirable to someone.”

These are the three things that drain us and we need to find ways to remove them from our lives so that we can be happy again.

Humbly Joyful.

May I suggest the following solution to dealing with shame: Instead of being humiliated we can be humbled. Shame can mean: “I have been humbled“ or it can mean: “I have been embarrassed or humiliated.”

The healthy response is: everything that causes us shame simply reminds us that we are fallible, but that is the normal for human beings. So to be reminded that we are vulnerable is not a humiliation; it is humbling to remember that we are merely human, that we are capable of being hurt and doing some hurt, we are fallible not infallible. So if we switch the feeling of humiliation to that of humility, not only do we get rid of the negative and regain our joy, but in the process we are also humbly joyful.

God’s Vast Eternal Plan.

What is the cure for the unhappiness that comes from “I need it to be my way”, “Why can’t I get what I want?”, “Why am I not getting what I deserve?” This notion that I deserve and that things should be my way, is a misconception, it’s a wrong approach and attitude towards reality.

The commercials that tell you: “Are you 100% satisfied with your job? You deserve better!” “You deserve to have more” are sending a terrible message and one that makes us crazy.

The alternative is to reflect on how the world was at the beginning. In the beginning there was nothing and God created something, the world, out of that nothing. Which means, this is His entire plan, we are guests on His show, we have a role to play in His vast eternal plan.

So if I’m welcome, if I’m included and if I’m given a role, I have a lot to be grateful for. And if I’m upset when things don’t go the way I think they should – that’s understandable. However, it’s not my plan, so why should it go my way? So as long as I have a role to play and as long as I’m needed in Gods vast eternal plan, I have a lot to be thankful for.

Regret Who You Hurt.

Now, there’s the guilt – two kinds. There’s guilt where you feel regret or shame for what you did. “I can’t believe I did that.”

Then there’s the guilt for who you did it to. “I can’t believe I would hurt this person.”

The regret for what one does isn’t always healthy, it could be depressing, it could be confusing: “I regret that I did it and I did it again. I regret again,” cycling into misery.

But when you regret who you did it to then you are getting closer to that person, the relationship is getting healthier and that is more productive.

So feeling guilty about who we did it to will not drain our joy, it won’t ruin our happiness. On the contrary, it makes us a better person and gives us more reasons to be happy.

To meet Rabbi Friedman and to inquire about training visit Rabbimanisfriedman.org

About the Author: To meet Rabbi Friedman and to inquire about training visit Rabbimanisfriedman.org


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The real question is “What is happiness?” We seem to be a very unhappy generation. Even when we say “This makes me happy”, “I am happy”, “I would be happy if you would do this”, “I will be happy to do that”, do we really mean happiness? Do we even know what happiness feels like?

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