A week before my son’s bar mitzvah, a friend shared the following advice, “Know that something is going to go wrong or won’t match your expectations. If you want to enjoy the event, make a decision beforehand that nothing will stand in the way of your happiness that night.”
Her advice was spot on! Mishaps occur at every simcha. Our job is to decide whether we want to focus and ruminate on them, or move on and enjoy the event wholeheartedly.
The decision to be happy during an event is a microcosm of choosing happiness for the longest event of all time: life.
Deciding to maintain joy for a few hours is easy compared to a lifelong pursuit! Furthermore, a simcha is just that – a joyous occasion. Life carries challenges and suffering; is it possible to maintain joy throughout it all?
Lucy Hone, a resilience guru, spent ten years researching this topic at the University of Pennsylvania. Her mentors were experts who trained the U.S. military in mental strength. She discovered tools and techniques to maintain happiness despite challenges, but admits that when it came to applying them to her own life’s challenges, they fell short. When her daughter died suddenly in a car accident, she was forced to access strength she didn’t realize she had.
She shared her techniques in a TED Talk, and began the presentation by asking the audience a poignant question:
“Have you ever lost someone you loved? Had your heart broken? Struggled through an acrimonious divorce, or been the victim of infidelity? Please stand up. Have you ever lived through a natural disaster? Been bullied? Or made redundant from a job? Ever had a miscarriage or an abortion, or struggled through infertility? Finally, have you or anyone you loved had to cope with mental illness, dementia, some form of physical impairment, or suicide?”
At this point the auditorium was entirely filled with thousands of people standing.
She then explained that pain doesn’t discriminate, and if you are alive, you have experienced challenges.
We often ask, “Why me?” when faced with a challenge. Hone said when her daughter passed away, she realized the better question was, “Why not me?”
Resilient people understand that suffering is part of being human. Understanding this prevents feelings of discrimination when challenges hit.
The Torah states, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”
This is not referring just to material goods, but also for the hand Hashem has dealt for us. Our life’s circumstances are our portion, and it’s our job to find joy within them.
Hone said in the TED talk: “The real tragedy is that not enough of us seem to know this any longer. We live in an age where many of us feel entitled to perfect lives. Shiny, happy photos on Instagram are the norm when, as all of us know, the very opposite is true.”
Here are three tips to bouncing back into a happy state, no matter what real life brings.
A Page from Alcoholics Anonymous
If we have the capacity to choose joy during the few hours of a simcha, we can also achieve happiness by tackling one day at a time.
One of the basic tenets of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is focusing on one day at a time. It is too daunting for the alcoholic to commit to a lifetime of never drinking again. It is useless to attempt to conquer such an unrealistic goal.
But everything changes when utilizing the day-by-day approach. It is unhelpful to think about tomorrow’s drinking, so it is pointless to spend mental energy on it. Just stay focused on remaining sober today.
Rabbi Avraham Twerski, zt”l, tells the the story of an alcoholic who would write at the end of each day how many days he had been sober. He died at the age of 84, but the night before he passed he wrote the following number: 17,892. He remained sober for 49 years by tackling each day independently.
The Torah initiated this concept thousands of years ago. The Talmud states, “Do not agonize about tomorrow’s problems, because you have no way of predicting tomorrow.”
One day at a time we can crawl through and overcome anything. We are all so much stronger than we believe.
Hunt the Good
Resilient people evaluate a circumstance and carefully direct their attention to what they have the power to change, while simultaneously accepting what they can’t. This valuable skill can be developed over time.
Practically, this means that happy people focus their attention on the good, no matter what is happening around them.
Psychologists who work with the United States Army phrase this as, “hunting the good stuff.”
It is for this reason that every night at dinner, I pose the same two questions to my family:
What was the best part of your day?
What made you feel grateful to G-d today?
Both questions help us reflect on a positive moment or experience. A person cannot feel both grateful and resentful at the same time. But more importantly, these thoughts help develop the inner trait of developing a good eye.
Benefit-finding boasts major rewards. During this global pandemic, I have kept a running list of the benefits of COVID-19. Whenever a family member thought of something positive from quarantine, we logged it. This practice has brought us some much-needed positive energy during an otherwise bleak time.
Sometimes finding the good is more like hunting for good. When my newborn baby was in the NICU and I had hemorrhaged myself, I maintained my gratitude log. One day, I felt so challenged that I had to search deep within for positivity. Even though I wanted to skip that day, instead I wrote, Thank you Hashem for a functioning brain and for the fact that I can hold this pen and write this sentence.
Although the tekufah felt dark, when reviewing my journal recently, I realized how many moments of hope and hashgacha had in fact been part of those dark times.
Hunt for the good. It may be obscured, but it’s there.
Harm Or Help?
Happy people ask themselves, Is this harming or helping me?
When Lucy Hone lost her daughter in a car accident, her world began to fall apart. What helped her survive was continually thinking that very question.
When faced with the choice to witness the trial of the driver who killed her child, she refrained.
When looking at old pictures of her daughter and falling into a hole of sadness, she stopped herself and headed into bed – a true act of kindness to herself.
Self-care isn’t just about indulgences. It also includes refraining from actions and thoughts that harm us.
Hone writes, “This one strategy has prompted more positive feedback than any other. I’ve gotten scores of letters and emails from people saying what a huge impact it’s had on their lives. By asking yourself whether you really need to drink that extra glass of wine, spend another hour on social media, or rehash the same old argument with a family member, you’re putting yourself back in the driver’s seat. It gives you control over your decision making.”
We only have one life to live, which is our metaphorical simcha! We will never get this time back. We can achieve a state of joy by taking one day at a time, hunting the good, and helping ourselves to enjoy life to the max.