Recipes for Forcing Happiness
Closing ThoughtsOpinion

Recipes for Forcing Happiness

The idea that you can just make yourself happy on demand is strange, but one that is embedded in Jewish life.

In the 1970s, journalist Norman Cousins gained fame for curing himself of a crippling tissue disease by watching on loop Marx Brothers movies that made him laugh. In Cousins’s experience, laughter and the joy that comes with it was so powerful that it could change reality.

The idea that you can just make yourself happy on demand is strange, but one that is embedded in Jewish life. There is the expectation that when we reach the Jewish month of Adar, we should fill our lives with happiness. We should be marbim b’simcha.

That we are commanded to be happy should come as no surprise, given the paragraph after the declaration of the Shema, the V’ahavta prayer, said daily, commands us to love God. And at Rosh Hashana, we are commanded to repent. Jewish tradition does not shy away from telling us how to feel.

This year, the Jewish year of 5782, is a leap year. To account for the discrepancies between the lunar and solar cycles, the rabbis added a month seven times every 19 years. The extra month means that we have not one but two months of Adar. Twice the obligation to be happy.

But I cannot just wake up on a given morning in midwinter when the month of Adar arrives and decide to be happy. On the contrary, the short, dark days and the grey skies tend to push me toward melancholy. This year, as we approach the second anniversary of the COVID pandemic, I, like most of you, am further weighed down by the limitations and challenges we face collectively.



Cousins was on to something. It is not just mind over matter, it is a matter of doing things that can lead to feeling or change our way of being. Following the commandments, teaching them to our children and keeping them front-of-mind and -heart is what leads to loving God. Examining our own actions and reciting prayers at Rosh Hashana leads us to feel repentant. In Adar, we celebrate Purim, holiday whose observances are meant to bring us joy.

On a literary level, the Purim story has many elements of the classic comedy of errors, meant to help us view tragedy with levity. Throughout the ages, no matter our suffering, at Purim we make the bad stories into a chance to laugh at life and celebrate its absurdities. We compound this by dressing up and making noise. The story and the silliness are meant to induce happiness. To celebrate Purim, we are also expected to share in a feast with others and gift food and drink. Like the story, coming together over food is another action that leads to happiness.

Lesser known is the obligation to give gifts to the less fortunate. Often, when we think about tzedakah, we think about the impact on the receiver, not the giver. But studies show that when we do good for others, we feel good. Helping others can make us happier.

Watching Marx Brothers movies is by no means a cure-all. The rituals of Purim will not guarantee happiness. Nor does our tradition expect us all to be able to turn our emotions on and off or avoid challenging realities. Yet, this year, more than many, we might all benefit from thinking about how even in difficult times we might choose to engage in actions that lead us to live with joy.

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