The Myth About Happiness

June 4, 2023

Series: June 2023

Speaker: Rabbi Paul Steinberg


Today's Sermon


"The Myth About Happiness"


Today, I want to begin by talking about Passover, which the Jewish world celebrated just less than 8 weeks ago. Passover is my favorite holiday. Basically, Passover constitutes a ritualized meal around the family table with 15 parts, called a Seder. If you’ve never been to one, just so you get a sense of it, a Sederinvolves focusing on symbolic foods and the retelling of the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt. There’s so much that I love about the Passover Seder, but the thing that I love the most about it is that is centers around children. There are four questions the youngest child is supposed to ask, there’s the telling of the exodus story itself, there’s a part of the seder where you study about four different types of children, there’s singing, and you can’t even finish the seder, the ritual meal until a child finds a hidden matzah called the afikomen. Kids are not a side part of it; they’re not just sitting there decoratively; chidren are central to it. In other words, the Passover Sederis fundamentally all about family and kids, which is why – well, along with it being about food – is why the Passover Sederis the most popular and celebrated Jewish ritual of the year; even more than holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

And as I look to society, I wonder if there’s any other equivalent to the Passover Sederin a kid’s or a family’s experience – some sort of celebratory counterpart that bridges the joy of family and ritual and meaning and identity in the same way. I don’t know, but I assume Christmas for some could be that, or Easter, but I do know that for some of my Christian brothers and sisters those holidays have become a bit secularized. There are, of course many secular Jews, too – Israel is filled with them – but during the Passover Sederthere’s really no escaping the meaning of the story of the exodus, the religious appeal of it, the moral narrative arc that defines Jewish identity which is derived from the gratitude that comes from being delivered from slavery. It’s that blend of meaning, learning, family, food and fun that creates the special sauce of joy and beauty.

So, I asked myself, where else in life do kids have that experience? Where else do they find a blending of both joy and depth?

Because this is what I want for kids: One, to find meaning in the symbols of life; Two, to have a sense of identity grounded in empathy and morality – again that’s for Jews what it means when we say we were slaves in Egypt; Three, to experience expressions of joy with family and friends; and Four, to see their own part and value in it – that they matter and are inheritors of something valuable which they will one day pass on and teach. I’m sure there’s more, but that’s essentially why Passover is my favorite holiday because it represents what I want for our kids. 

But when you ask parents today, generally speaking, what they say they want for their kids may not be those kinds of things. Notice what is missing from my list. What parents often say is that they want their kids to be happy. Happy. Sadly, however, study after study shows that kids in America today are not happy. Recent studies have shown that up to 68% of children are showing some sort of signs of depression, anxiety, and issues of mental health. The pandemic surely added to this, but this trend was going on well before the pandemic. Academic stress; the all or nothing message adults continue to preach that if they don’t get into a particular college then somehow these kids are doomed to a life of “flipping burgers”; the degrading state of the world including climate change, the division of the classes, the political divisiveness; the pressures and bullying and addictive nature of social media – kids absorb all of this. Despite what parents and adults say about wanting their kids to be happy, well … we’re not doing a good job of creating an environment for them where it’s easy to be happy.  The United States has yet to make the top 15 ranked happiest countries in the world. I’m sure that’s not surprising to many, but if you think about it, it’s kind of shocking considering what America is supposed to be and represent … and I don’t imagine that many of us are moving to Denmark or Finland any time soon. …

And so, today I want to talk about how to be happy. Because, as it turns out, being happy is less like something you can achieve and more like something you either have or don’t have. Wishing your children to be happy is sort of like wishing them to be tall or beautiful or good at math – they either are or they aren’t, and sadly, there’s not much you can do about it. And maybe there’s not much they can do about it. Psychologists and social scientists who have researched this topic are pretty much unanimous about this and they conclude that happiness is much more like an attribute than an acquisition. There’s a lot in our psychological literature about something called our “happiness set point.”  Studies seem to support the view that just as our natural weight varies from person to person, so too our capacity to be happy seems to be the result of nature rather than nurture – not totally, but mostly. Any parent or grandparent here who has seen two kids or even twins come from the same mother and father and raised similarly, has probably noticed that one of them seems to have been born to kvetch(Yiddish for whining or complaining), while the other was born to see the silver lining in every dark cloud. They had the same nurture, but happy is an attribute that is different in each of us.

The truth is though that these “happy-ologists” aren’t totally deterministic. Research shows that we can affect the happiness of ourselves and our children to some small, but still significant degree. Things like the jobs we choose to do, the schools we attend, the money we make all have some impact upon our happiness. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they only account for about 10-15% of our happiness of what psychologists call our “subjective sense of well-being,” which is shrink-speak for how good we judge our life to be. That leaves 85-90% as to whether we are happy or sad as being out of our control, like our basic personality type.

So, what can we do? What can we teach our children to do to marginally adjust our happiness set point? The big revelation here from both spiritual traditions and the “happy-ologists” is that the things that we think matter most in making us happy, actually matter least, and the things we think matter least, actually matter most. For example, beautiful people are not happier than, well in Yiddish we’d say a miskayit– you know what a miskayitis? – not so beautiful, okay.  Read the tabloids and you’ll find a litany of depressed and unhappy beautiful people. Young people are not happier than elderly people. Actually, older folks tend to be happier than kids. Smart people are not happier than not so smart people. Smart people tend to be burdened by their understanding of all the things that can go wrong in life. Educated people are not happier than uneducated people. Education tends to raise expectations that world usually can’t live up to.

So, what does make us happy? Simple things. It’s the simple things that make us happy. Did you know bread makes us happy? Sorry to say this for the gluten free crowd. I mean there’s too many carbs in it – it makes us heavy, but it also makes us happy. So, maybe if we can just appreciate bread every time we eat, we can appreciate everything else that comes to us. Happiness after all is a result of gratitude and if we can be grateful from our bread up to our other luxuries and not the other way around, we’ll be a little happier.

And most things that make us happy are like bread – ordinary, unglamourous, common things, the vanilla stuff of life.  High self-esteem makes us happy because narcissists tend not to be as depressed as those with low self-esteem. A good sense of humor makes us happy. Ya gotta laugh, we all know that. Friendship and other social skills make us happy. In fact, studies show that being with friends makes us happier than being with our family and our kids… just don’t tell your family or kids that. Free time makes us happy – activities that combine socializing and moderate physical skills are the best. Socializing and moderate physical skills – and with that, I finally understand the appeal of golf.  But of course, we all have hiking here in Marin, which is even better. Volunteering makes us happy. In one study, volunteering actually made people happier than anything with the exception of – can you guess? – Dancing. As a rabbi, I see that all the time about volunteering. The combination of social connection and the opportunity to do something meaningful is what makes volunteering fun. Also, being pleased frequently makes us happier than intense moments of happiness that occur infrequently.

And finally, religion makes people happy. Not because of sermons… I get that part of it. Religious affiliation makes people happy because it fosters community ties and social networks. I mean, I want to say duh! Right? I’ve only spent my whole life trying to convince families of this.

So, what society tends to tell us makes us happy actually doesn’t. And when people say they want their kids to be happy, I’m not sure they’re being precise about it or know what they mean. For example, the notion that money buys us happiness remains – and I know people say they don’t believe it, but their actions don’t support that – that money buys happiness remains one of the most spiritually corrosive illusions. Although, some of us might buy into the philosophy of the Irish comedic actor Spike Milligan who said: “Well, money may not be able to buy you happiness, but it sure can bring you a more pleasant form of misery.” Or maybe you prefer Henny Youngman’s teaching, who said: “What’s the use happiness, it can’t buy you money.”

But the research is clear on this: money is good, but once you make enough to meet the basic needs of food and shelter, more money doesn’t make you happier. Wealth and happiness are simply not correlated. Worst of all, it diverts us from our true happiness and blessing, and continues to be a terribly destructive and erosive force in American society that prevents us from achieving our potential for happiness.

A story:  An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal, Mexican village, when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The banker complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican fisherman said, “Only a little while senor.” The banker then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish. The fisherman explained that he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. And the American banker asked, “Well then what do you do with the rest of your time?” The fisherman said, “Oh I sleep in late, I fish a little, I play with my children. I take a siesta with my wife Maria. I stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life senor.” 

The banker scoffed, “Look I went Harvard. I have an MBA from Harvard okay, and I can help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds of more fish, you could buy a bigger boat.  And with proceeds of the bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you’d sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and of course move to Mexico City and then Los Angeles, and eventually New York City where you will run your expanding enterprise.” 

The fisherman listened intently and asked, “But senor how long will this take?” 

“Oh, about 15- 20 years,” replied the banker. 

“But what then senor?” asked the fisherman.

The banker laughed and said, “Well, when the time is right, you’d announce an IPO and sell your company’s stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

The fisherman’s jaw dropped wide open, and he said, “Millions, senor? Then what?”

The banker said, “Well, this is the best part! Then you could retire. You could move to a small coastal fishing village in Mexico. You could sleep in late, fish a little, play with your children, take a siesta with your wife, stroll into the village each evening where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos.” 

The Rabbinic tradition teaches, “Eizehu ashir? Who is rich? Ha-Same’ach b’chelko, the one who is happy with his portion.”

I don’t want my children or wish for my children to be happy. I want and wish for my children to be good. And what I tell my children is that if you’re good, I promise, you’ll be happy – your happiness is a byproduct of your goodness. Or if you don’t agree that, then what we should want for our children is that what makes them happy is same thing as what makes them good. Let me say that again – we should teach them is that what makes them happy is what makes them good.

Now, I know that you don’t celebrate Passover, but you do have your own traditions that might be similar. Traditions that take the family and food and story and song – things that make us happy and blend it with an ethic that teaches us empathy, to not do to others what is hateful to you, to not celebrate the suffering of those with whom we disagree nor our even our own enemies, to be grateful for all for all that we have that led to this moment, and to have hope in our darkest hours. That’s for me what it is to be a religious person. And we should keep these traditions, not for our children or for ourselves just to be happy – happiness seems to just mean pleasure nowadays – but to link our joy to our goodness, which is what I bless us all and our children with today.

Thank you and may God bless you.