What Judaism and Oprah Teach Us About Happiness, Even During War

Given the state of the world and Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas, can we expect to be happy? The Torah seems to suggest that happiness is a mitzvah or at the very least the state required to channel blessing into our lives but how can we be happy now?

In their new bestseller “Building the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier,’ Harvard psychology professor Arthur C. Brooks and his collaborator Ophrah Winfrey offer actionable advice.

 Here are some nuggets all of which dovetail with traditional Jewish wisdom.

1. Don’t expect perfect bliss. “We won’t find complete happiness on this side of heaven,” writes Brooks. Focus instead, he advises  on being happier., “You can get happier even if you have problems,’ “You can even get happier in some cases because you have problems.” This echoes Ethics of Our Father’s famed teaching which defines a positive mental state as being “satisfied with one’s lot.” regardless of what that is.

 But how? Here Oprah chimes in.

2. “Feel the feel, but take the wheel,” she writes. Don’t be in denial. Feel those bad feelings but find the upside. Oprah recalls the weeks she spent holed up in Amarillo, Texas standing trial for libel. Stuck there, she kept her spirits up by focusing on the good, which she defined as a comfortable bed, messages of support, and her beloved cocker spaniels by her side.  We can do the same. It’s in our DNA. The root for the word “Yehudi,’ or Jew, means to thank.

3. Externalize your situation.  Pretend that it’s happening to someone else—not you. Brooks relates the story of the Roman philosopher, Boethius, who, while imprisoned and awaiting execution for a crime he probably didn’t commit, the Roman philosopher observed “Every lot is happy,” he wrote if borne with equanimity.”

We Jews are masters at this. Our tradition is full of tales of great Rabbs who stayed serene by prioritizing their spiritual practice, the study of Torah under the most unimaginable of circumstances.

4. Train yourself to have good thoughts. Brooks suggests maintaining a database of positive memories. “By conjuring them up you can interrupt a doom loop and improve your mood,” he writes. Start a journal of happy memories and review them when you feel down and out of control.

5. See painful experiences as growth opportunities. Journal about what you’ve learned from them.

6. Use gratitude meditations. This is Judaism 101. Our prayers, and especially the practice of making blessings, inject gratitude into our daily lives.

7. Laugh. ” Humor that helps you laugh at your circumstances is associated with increased life satisfaction, ‘he writes. But keep that humor positive. Avoid humor that attacks others or prompts you to belittle yourself because that won’t block negative feelings.

We Jews are famous for laughing even under dire circumstances and the Jewish laws of proper speech demand that humor be positive.

8. Choose hope. Brooks defines hope as a conviction, not that circumstances will improve, but that one can act to make things better somehow.

While this war might be with us for some time, living with hope will push us to embrace opportunities to improve things.

9. Choose compassion over empathy. Empathy, or mentally putting yourself in the suffering person’s shoes to feel their pain will. raise negative feelings, whereas compassion or feeling the pain of others but not allowing yourself to become dysfunctional will propel you to help and that will make you feel happier

10. Reduce the time you spend looking in the mirror and/or looking at social media. Take the focus off yourself. Instead, focus on being as good to others as selflessly as possible. View your life as an opportunity to serve others.

As Hillel observed, “if I am only for myself, what am I?”

11. Stop making judgments about the world. Instead of saying, “This coffee tastes terrible,” say, “this coffee is bitter.” “It’s a huge relief not to have an opinion on everything. This will keep you calmer and in a greater state of inner peace,” writes Brooks.

Or as Ethics of Our Fathers observes, “He who is wise, he who learns from everyone.”.

12. Marvel at Hashem’s World. Walk in nature. Look at great art. Listen to stirring music. –latch on to experiences that induce a state of awe.

13. Cherish friends and family. Treat your family as you do your friends, generously giving and gratefully accepting emotional support

14. If you live with someone unhappy, take good care of yourself. View their happiness the way you’d view a physical malady.

15. Don’t forget about G-d. Devote some time each day to reading wisdom literature and or praying.

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