Happiness is a Decision
Some choices are easier than others: chocolate fudge or strawberry ice cream; Miami Beach or Destin FL; a Toyota or a Buick? These are called approach-approach conflicts. You’re conflicted, but it’s a choice between 2 good things.
Then there’s an avoidance-avoidance conflict. Those are tougher. You have to choose between 2 unpleasant options: root canal or chemotherapy; 30 days in jail or a $50,000 fine; Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?
But there’s also the “no brainer.” That’s called an approach-avoidance conflict, where you choose between something pleasant and something unpleasant: Pralines 'N Cream ice cream or a colonoscopy; a trip to Hawaii or a million dollar law suit; a diamond ring or execution? One would be crazy to choose the unpleasant experiences over the pleasant ones.
This morning’s Torah portion, Re’ey, is a classic example of an “approach-avoidance” conflict. The very 1st verse spells it out very clearly: Re’ey anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom b’racha uklala, “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. A Blessing if you obey the commandments of Hashem your Gd…and a curse if you will not obey…And it will come to pass when Hashem your Gd has brought you in to the land which you are entering to possess, that you shall put the blessing on Mt. Gerizim and the curse upon Mt. Eval.”
Imagine you’re an ancient Israelite and Gd offers you blessings or curses, reward or punishment. Which would you like? Of course you’d opt for the blessings. But you know, that’s not always the way of the world. Sometimes, even when we strive for the blessings, we somehow get drawn to the curses.
Let me set the stage for you. The Israelites stood on 2 mountains: 6 tribes on Mt. Gerizim and 6 tribes on Mt. Eval. The Kohanim and Leviim were in the valley surrounding the Holy Ark. They would turn to Mt. Gerizim and pronounce a blessing and all on both mountains—about 3 million people—would say, “Amen!” They would then turn to Mt. Eval and pronounce a corresponding curse and all would say, “Amen!” This was done again and again. It must have been such an awe inspiring experience. You would think that all Jews—in that generation and in subsequent generations—would be attracted exclusively to the blessings, and pursue happiness instead of misery. You would think!
If any sane person were offered to choose blessings or curses, they’d say, “Blessings, of course.” But all of us know people who have chosen self-destructive paths. And in so doing, how many of these people caused harm and pain to people around them whom they supposedly love?
Over the years, I’ve watched people self-immolate—people with talent and smarts, who throw common sense by the wayside and get themselves into such trouble. I’ve seen people throw away what could have been “good marriages” by abusing their spouse or by infidelity, or, most commonly, by indifference. I’ve witnessed people squander good jobs and opportunities by regularly exercising poor judgment. It’s such a waste, and it defies logic.
Of course we want blessings. Of course we want success. Of course we want joy. But achieving those goals is easier said than done. We’re often our own worst enemies.
Parents say, “All I want is for my children to be happy.” How does one begin to find happiness? National talk-show host, author and lecturer Dennis Prager—who was in Atlanta last week—has an insightful book called, Happiness Is a Serious Problem. In it he says: Yes, there is a “secret to happiness”—and it is gratitude. All happy people are grateful, and ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that it is being unhappy that leads people to complain, but it is truer to say that it is complaining that leads to people becoming unhappy. Become grateful and you will become a much happier person.
I think there’s such great wisdom in this. Even if your life is a mess, be grateful for what you do have and it will help lift the misery.
It’s almost cliché to say it but happiness does not depend on how much or what you have. Studies have consistently shown that once one has the minimum necessities of life—food, shelter, transportation and health care—one is every bit as likely to be happy or unhappy regardless of how well-off one is. How many of us have heard people speak about their early years with a smile saying, “We didn’t have much. We lived in a small rundown one-bedroom apartment with 2 kids, but we were so happy. What happened?” Happiness is a decision. One can choose to be happy in almost any circumstance. And I would add, one must choose to be happy.
As Dennis Prager would say, “Happiness is a moral imperative…happy people make the world better and unhappy people make it worse.” When you’re happy it brightens up the world. And when you’re unhappy it has a powerful negative influence on everyone around you.
Ask people raised by an unhappy parent if that unhappiness hurt them. A marriage with an unhappy spouse is headed for real trouble. Unhappy children make their parents miserable. Prager writes about a couple that has 4 middle-aged children of whom 3 are truly well-adjusted, successful and decent people. The 4th has been unhappy most of his life and has been a never-ending source of pain and has always overshadowed the joy that the parents experience from the other 3. Hence the saying that: “One is no happier than one’s least happy child.”
Consider the effects of a brooding co-worker on the morale of everyone he/she works with—not to mention the huge difference between working for a happy or a moody boss. Prager suggests: We should regard bad moods as we do offensive body odor. Just as we shower each day so as not to inflict our body odors on others, so we should monitor our bad moods so as not to inflict them on others.
The flip side of the damage unhappy people do when they subject others to their unhappiness is the good that people do when they are—or at least act—happy. Happy people not only brighten up the world around them, they have more energy and are more inclined to help others. And that’s why happiness is a moral obligation.
This takes us back to our ancestors who stood on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval—the 2 summits of blessings and curses. Their heads were telling them, “Embrace Mt. Gerizim—embrace the blessings.” But there were so many distractions and there would inevitably be those who would choose Mt. Eval, the mountain of curses.
We don’t live near Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval. They’re located in what we now call the West Bank and even if we lived in Israel it wouldn’t be very safe to go there. But spiritually both peaks continue to compete for our attention.
My friends, we can become fixated on the challenges of our lives and become depressed and cynical, and wallow in constant misery and anger. Or we can focus, rather, on the good things in our lives, the blessings Gd showers upon us and be grateful and find happiness. Ultimately, happiness is a choice and we can be the masters of our attitude. We can choose to feel blessed or cursed. We can choose Mt. Gerizim over Mt. Eval. May Gd help us make the right choice. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis