Tal Ben-Shahar wasn’t always an authority on happiness. As Israel’s youngest squash champion, he derived no lasting happiness from his athletic feats or fame. Later, he was no happier as a student of philosophy and psychology at Harvard. Then he discovered a newly emerging field. Unlike traditional psychology, it did not dwell on neurosis, depression or anxiety, but stressed mental wellness over mental illness.
As shaped by Martin Seligman, a former head of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, positive psychology borrows from the self-help movement but relies on data gleaned through rigorous research and analysis.
“Simply put, positive psychology is the science of happiness,” Ben-Shahar, who now teaches in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, writes in his 2010 book “Being Happy: You Don’t Have To Be Perfect To Lead a Richer Happier Life”. “It works with people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.”
Studies have shown that psychiatric disorders can be treated and sometimes cured with medication and psychotherapy, but the goal of relieving distressing symptoms alone casts a somewhat negative pall over the healing process. Positive psychology encourages us to thrive and flourish rather than stagnate in a state of okay-ness. And this optimistic approach can be taught through a series of exercises, reflections and meditations.
It’s touted as a new field, but positive psychology may hark back to the Jews of antiquity, who, influenced by Aristotle’s belief that the ultimate goal of all virtuous human action was to achieve happiness, devoted considerable time to its study.
The rabbis of the Talmud did not read Aristotle directly, says Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, professor of modern Judaism and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University. But traces of his approach, “absorbed through the mediation of Stoic moral philosophy, can be identified in rabbinic thought” and were later “explored systematically by the medieval philosopher Maimonides,” who, like the Aristotelians, “exalted moderation.”
The “Signature Strengths” described in Seligman’s “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” include wisdom and knowledge, spirituality, sense of purpose, honesty and mercy, which correspond to many of the positive character traits discussed in Maimonides’ writings.
“In the ancient and medieval periods, ‘happiness’ was understood as ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing,’ and it had to do with the quality of one’s soul,” Tirosh-Samuelson, the author of “Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge, and Well-Being” says. “The Judaic approach to happiness has to do with the kind of life one leads, rather than how one feels at a given moment.” Later, a new “Utilitarian” conception of happiness emerged, “which focused on subjective feeling and equated happiness with pleasure. The perceived tension between Judaism and happiness” pertains to this point of view.
In his book, “Happier,” Ben-Shahar defines happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning.”
Terminology can change. In his latest book, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being,” Seligman suggests that “well-being” should be the new gold standard of positive psychology, because happiness is “disproportionately tied to mood.”
“The purpose of Judaism is not to make you happy,” says Rabbi Shai Held, founder and dean of Mechon Hadar, an educational institution devoted to egalitarian Torah learning, prayer and service on the Upper West Side. “It’s to make you responsive to God and caring to other people. Both of those of course can be sources of profound joy.”
A greater emphasis on happiness came with what Held calls “the rebellion in chasidism.” The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidic Judaism, “saw guilt and self-doubt as potentially enormous impediments to the spiritual life. The chasidim thought that if you were in a relationship with God you should feel joy.” This, says Held, “led some to attack them for being frivolously happy, not sufficiently sober.” In Held’s interpretation, the chasidic master, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, could be said to have “anticipated Seligman” when he put a more positive spin on Passover by adding to the traditional practice of identifying ways “in which I am still enslaved” a commitment to find places “where I’m already free. There is always some part of me that is liberated.”
Held, who is writing a book tentatively titled “The Heart of Judaism: Seven Ideas to Change Your Life,” has been using elements of positive psychology in his teaching by showing that “a lot of modern Jewish thought is moving away from a preoccupation with ‘what’s wrong with me?’ to operating from a position of strength. ‘Where are my strengths, and how can I build from there?’”
“It’s easy to make a connection between positive psychology and Judaism,” says Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist in private practice and head of the department of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale. “Classical Jewish theory emphasizes action. It’s involved with establishing goals and strategies. It encourages you to be a positive and effective agent of your own destiny.”
Studies indicate that religion contributes to personal happiness. “Survey data consistently show religious people as being somewhat happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious people,” Seligman writes in “Authentic Happiness.” “Religions instill hope for the future and create meaning in life.”
Higher than religion on Seligman’s list of top happiness contributors is marriage. “Perhaps the single most robust fact across many surveys is that married people are happier than anyone else,” he writes. “Marriage works remarkably well from a positive psychology point of view,” and “is a more potent happiness factor than satisfaction with job, finances or community.”
No one would deny that Judaism places a priority on marriage. The Seventh Blessing recited under the chupah juxtaposes the words “joy and gladness, groom and bride” and praises God for creating abundant aspects of happiness: “mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and harmony and peace and companionship.”
However, Judaism’s “enormous emphasis can produce a lot of strain and pathology,” Friedman cautions. “Among traditional Jews, “there is very little room for those for whom this doesn’t work in a conventional way.”
“The human family is undergoing changes — becoming more flexible and more egalitarian,” says Tirosh-Samuelson. “What positive psychology does not explore in sufficient depth is the complicated issue of love and the challenge of sustaining love over a long period of life.”
Raising children, another Jewish priority, is not necessarily a prescription for happiness. In her book, “The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain,” psychologist Tali Sharot reports that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, “a consistent conclusion across studies [shows] that children do not bring us joy.” A possible explanation is that passing down our genes, rather than happiness, is necessary for the continuation of humankind.
One of Seligman’s “Signature Strengths” is gratitude. “The reason it works to increase life satisfaction is that it amplifies good memories,” he says. He instituted a “Gratitude Night” in his class at the University of Pennsylvania, in which students bring a guest who has played an important role in their lives but whom they had never properly thanked before.
In the positive psychology class Ben-Shahar taught at Harvard, which drew more than 800 students, he assigned a “gratitude journal.”
“These exercises are in complete accord with the Jewish outlook,” Tirosh-Samuelson says. “Jewish prayer and the Jewish system of blessing is about expressing gratitude to God.”
Gratitude is closely linked to forgiveness. You can’t forget bad memories or the abusive actions of others, “but you can set yourself free by forgiving,” Seligman writes.
We should also forgive ourselves our own shortcomings. Perfectionism is a powerful obstacle to happiness. In “Being Happy,” Ben-Shahar contrasts the perfectionist, who sets unrealistic goals, with the “optimalist,” who accepts failure as “part of the journey.”
Michael Wex, author of “Born to Kvetch,” points out that Jews in North America in the year 5772 have every reason to be grateful. We’ve been spared expulsions, pogroms and the deprivation of our civil rights, he points out. “In our history there are these temporary intense intervals of happiness — especially if there’s a sweets table.”
On Yom Kippur, we seek teshuvah. The word’s literal meaning is a “turning.” In our belief that we can make a turnaround, that we have it in our power to change (albeit with some struggle), are we not fervent optimalists? And on Sukkot, when we rejoice in our spiritual purity and savor the bounties of the harvest, aren’t we practicing positive psychology?
Martha Mendelsohn is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. Her articles and essays on a variety of subjects have appeared in The Jewish Week, Tikkun, Moment and The New York Times. She has just completed a novel for young adults.