How’s your happiness?

There is a well-known expression in the Talmud applicable at this time of year: “When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.”  During the Hebrew month of Av, the Talmud continues, when we mark the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of our holiest sanctuary, we are supposed to reduce our happiness (BT Ta’anit 29a), what I call a halakhic (legal) seasonal affective disorder.  It sounds as if our emotions can be turned on and off like a light switch. 

Happiness is foundational to the religious mindset.  The psalmist says: “Serve the Lord with happiness…” (100:2), and when we bring out first fruits to the Temple, we recite a prayer that reinforces the emotional state of joy that this moment should be for us: “And you should rejoice in all the good that the Lord has given you..” (Deut. 26:11).  We are even warned and punished if we do not rejoice in what we are given because happiness is the desired ontological state of the religious human being:  “Because you did not serve the Lord joyfully and gladly in a time of prosperity…” (Deut. 28:47).  It is a curse to be unable to muster joy at a time of blessing. 

Rebbe Nahman tells us it is a mitzva to be happy always, despite what Arthur Green documents about his deep depressive tendencies in Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav.  And yet Rebbe Nahman continually fought his melancholic impulse:  “…For it is known that a man must be very careful to be always happy, and to distance sadness very, very much… The same applies to the way you look at yourself.  You must judge yourself favorably and find the good points that exist in you.  This will strengthen you so you won’t fall into despair (Likutei Moharan Kama, Torah 282).

But why Adar?  Why not every month of the year?  It seems that indeed one month, this month, does give us a boost and that there is something nuanced about happiness in this season that is particular to this month.  Our text?  The megillah.  In 9:22, we read, “The days when the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness…” became an occasion to share a feast together and give gifts to friends.  We are joyful because as a community we transformed ourselves emotionally from doom and despair to gladness.  This is the happiness of justice prevailing.  This is so intrinsic to Adar, as a just season for the Jews, that a code of law recommends that if you have to go to court with a gentile (in periods where we had an adversarial relationship), you should set the trial date in Adar (based on BT Ta’anit 29a). 

In Adar we are not supposed to be happy; we are supposed to increase our happiness.  So it’s time to use Adar to amplify our H.Q. — our Happiness Quotient.  What is your baseline?  Where are you from 1-10 (with 1 being miserable and 10 being exuberant)?  Now imagine adding just a point or two this month.  Here’s some questions to help:

• Do you have a happy place and are you spending enough time there? 

• What people — family, friends and colleagues — make you feel happy and are you spending enough time with them?

• Think of three areas of your life that have to go well in order for you to feel happy.

• What is one thing that you own that makes you happy?

• Name one mitzva, holiday or Jewish ritual that makes you happy.

• Do you make time to acknowledge or celebrate your accomplishments and the blessings in your life or are you too harsh on yourself?

• Do you share or communicate your happiness with others?

• Do you let other people rob you of your happiness?

• What about work, school or retirement makes you feel happy?

• Does giving tzedaka and/or volunteering contribute to your personal happiness?

This month we’re asked to challenge our baseline happiness and enhance it.  My guess is that if we all work hard on increasing our personal happiness in the month of Adar, it may not end when Adar ends but just may spill over into every other month of the year. 

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.  She is a faculty member of The Wexner Foundation and has authored 12 books. Her forthcoming book is Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet. Those interested can sign up for her weekly blog, “Weekly Jewish Wisdom,” at