A Sabbath Message: Choosing Happiness in Challenging Times

“Everyone wants happiness, no one wants pain. But you can’t make a rainbow without a little rain.” – Dolly Parton

With the arrival of Shabbat this week, I find myself reflecting upon compelling research I have been reading about lately: the importance of HAPPINESS during difficult times like these. But what kind of happiness are we really talking about and is it possible to be truly “happy” right now? With everything going on around us, it may seem odd even inappropriate to discuss this subject. But the truth is, this is both a physical and a mental health crisis – and we must therefore focus on happiness now more than ever. In addition, it is important to remember that in a time in which we feel so powerless, we can decide to control how we feel about our own happiness. Here are three areas to consider.

Happiness is indeed possible in dark times – and you can choose it. And not only is it possible – it is necessary for giving us the resiliency to get through this crisis. But it is important to note that this kind of happiness is not the unrealistic kind – it acknowledges the fears and anxieties we are feeling, and looks for deeper meaning. Professionals call this “post-traumatic growth.”  The key is to allow yourself to feel what you are really feeling and then to move forward and consider what can you do next which is in line with your values. How can you use your strengths, empathy, and positivity to shape your life right now, thereby helping foster resilience in others? You will soon see that you are making a conscious choice – happiness comes from within. 

Give up on unrealistic ideas about happiness. It turns out that we have learned a great deal from Laurie Santos, the Yale psychology professor who developed the now famous course on happiness. She has revealed that most of us are actually terrible at predicting what will make us happy. We generally go after the wrong goals ­­– money and status – and overlook the fact that it is usually the everyday simple things that make us most content. And one of the things we do which leads us to feel the least happy is to compare ourselves with others. Santos notes that we aren’t necessarily wired for happiness – we pay more attention to survival from crisis. So, we must work at happiness. She and other experts remind us of three important strategies: 

  • Connect to others – good, quality relationships keep us happier and healthier.
  • Move and breathe – physical activity can boost happiness, yoga is a great choice for breathing.
  • Take a moment to savor and enjoy – special moments can bring great joy – sunrise or birdsong; a song or memory.

Work with what we know about “happiness biology.” We could all use some good news, right? Well here is some: according to researchers, as we move through our lives, the evidence is clear that we typically get happier! Throughout the world, it has been shown that the natural progression is a U-curve of happiness, highest in the early 20’s, lower in middle age, and then a steady increase in joy from that point forward. There are various theories for this, including genetic and socially-based. But what is clear is that decades of life experience and brain changes later in life create a new kind of happiness for adults in their 50’s and beyond. One researcher referred to it as the “Neurobiology of Wisdom” – and I admit I kind of like that! The focus is more on the positive and on others – a sense of purpose yields a feeling of well-being. Perhaps not for all of us now, but this gives us hope for happiness as we look to the future!

With blessings for a Shabbat Shalom – and a wish that you find happiness and joy in your life,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW, MAJCS
Director, Jewish Family Service