When I ask people about their happiest moments, they often mention a wedding, birth or other momentous occasion. I have asked this simple question to thousands of people, and I’ve received a wide range of answers, including Thanksgiving dinners or praying at the Kotel (Western Wall).
Although the responses vary, in essence the answers are all the same, just packaged a little differently.
The common thread is connection. We feel happiest when we are connecting with others, connecting to G-d, and even when connecting inwardly, by tapping into our deepest selves.
Conversely, our saddest moments, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce and basic loneliness, are laced with disconnection.
Connection is the root of all joy.
One of the best ways to achieve connection is by giving. When we feel sad, we assume we need to “get” or receive. Dig deeper, and we find that what our soul really wants is to give.
But why do we feel so great when we give? First, we must understand why getting doesn’t make us happy. When we feel an internal void, our natural instinct is to fill it with things. But nothing physical can ever really fill such a hole. Yet materialism is an important avenue to attaining spirituality, according to Jewish thought. Allow me to illustrate this concept.
A princess marries a commoner, and he showers her with luxuries: a new wardrobe, jewelry and exotic travel. She responds to these gifts by asking, “Is that all you can do? I had designers come to the palace to make custom clothing… Five-carat diamonds? That’s all? And Bora Bora? I’ve been there fifteen times already.” Nothing satisfies her, because she is the daughter of the king. She is used to luxuries that a commoner can’t imagine. He can’t give her what her royal self craves.
Similarly, no amount of shopping, luxury or travel will ever satisfy the soul, because the soul stems from a spiritual source. We are the daughters of the King. Our souls come from out of this world, and nothing here can ever possibly satiate them. We are longing for something deeper – we are longing for connection.
Through giving, we connect to others, but we also connect to Hashem by imitating Him. This imitation creates similarity, and similarity leads to connection.
The Huffington Post wrote about a study where 96 participants were given five dollars each day for five days. Half were told to spend the money on themselves, and the other half were instructed to give the money away. Those who utilized the five dollars for themselves reported a steady decrease in happiness over the five days, while the participants who gave the money away experienced increased joy and satisfaction on day five.
The best way to combat feeling down is to do something for someone else. Thoughts that stop us are often, Oh I’m tired, or, I don’t have the energy. But the truth is, giving gives you energy. It nourishes us, like food for the soul.
I learned this lesson when I was a student in college. I was the founder of the Kindness Committee, and every week I was tasked with finding 25 women to commit to volunteer on a Friday morning to serve in a restaurant-style soup kitchen.
The challenge was that Thursdays were always party nights, and finding enough women was a daunting task. While boarding the bus each week, almost everyone regretted signing up. Their beds were calling their names, and their faces told me loud and clear that they had no intention of coming back the following week.
When we arrived at the soup kitchen, we served the patrons like they were kings and queens. We listened to their stories, and we gave them the scarves off our backs.
On the bus ride home – still earlier than any of us would have normally been awake – we were energized. We felt lit up and ready to start the day.
Another thought that stops us from giving to others is that we don’t want to be taken advantage of. I once met a student who had her tongue read by a witch doctor. (I don’t know how a person even does this), but he told her she had to stop giving because she was being taken for granted. He suggested that she stop teaching. When she approached me about it, I said to her, “Please don’t worry about being taken advantage of. When we give, Hashem always finds a way to give back.”
The word natan, gift, is a palindrome. When we give forth, it comes back to us.
There is a famous story about Asher Bookstein, as told by Rabbi Yaakov Cohen. Three families lived in an apartment building, one atop the next, in Jerusalem, and the Bookstein family lived on the third floor. When the first-floor family installed an iron gate around their porch to prevent break-ins, the Frager family on the second floor was not pleased, as they were concerned it would allow robbers to climb to their second-floor porch. To keep the peace, the Bookstein family paid for an iron gate to be built around their neighbor’s porch so that their property would be protected as well. The Booksteins were happy to give in this way, without any personal gain aside from their neighbors’ happiness.
A few weeks later, the Booksteins were out while their fourteen-year-old daughter babysat their younger children. Unexpectedly, a fire broke out, and the children were trapped inside their home. With no safe escape and the firetruck still on its way, it was only a matter of time before something tragic happened. Suddenly, two young men climbed the iron gates of the first and second floors and were able to enter the Bookstein’s apartment by breaking through their porch door. The iron gates saved the Booksteins’ own children.
The Booksteins gave wholeheartedly, expecting nothing in return. Yet Hashem repaid them immeasurably for their altruistic act. When we give selflessly, Hashem gives back to us in an unlimited fashion, allowing us to experience the ultimate reciprocation from above.