Hurray (?) for Happiness

By Jeffrey S. Kress

The Jewish Education Project should be credited for its efforts to further bridge the arenas of positive psychology and Jewish education, and for sparking debate about the notion of happiness. Despite stereotypes of Woody Allen-esque neuroticism, there is bountiful evidence that Judaism and happiness fit together quite nicely. After all, we are approaching the start of Adar, the onset of which is associated with abundant joy. And, later on in the Jewish calendar we find Sukkot; rejoicing during this festival is not a lifestyle choice, but a positive commandment. Finally, Rav Nachman of Bretzlov’s exhortation, “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy,” continues to energize and is invoked in song at many Jewish celebrations.

More than a decade ago my colleagues [see note] and I embarked on what we often referred to as the “Happiness Project” (this precedes Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling eponymous book), and our work seems particularly relevant at the moment. At the time, happiness did not occupy the central role in education and psychology that it does today. Contemporary positive psychology as a field was only a few years old, and the happiness “movement” was only beginning to emerge.

Perhaps if things were otherwise, we might have felt happier, so to speak, about the term happiness. At that point, though, at least some members of our team were concerned that highlighting happiness in and of itself would lead to an oversimplification of a very complex set of educational outcomes. Bring a bunch of kids together, give them snacks, and let them play whatever games they want … they will sure appear to be happy and, if you are lucky, they may even tell you that they are. But would we refer to this as education? Not so much. And, while it is common to note that parents “just want their children to be happy,” things are rarely that simple. Most parents would be quite alarmed if their children rejoiced, for example, at the losses or suffering of others. Parents want their children’s happiness to be accompanied by menschlekheit, an outcome that has remained relevant and well-anchored through all the changing tides of North American Jewry and Jewish education.

Further, we all recognize that, with all due respect to Rabbi Nachman, constant happiness is illusory; life will inevitably provide occasions where happiness is unachievable and, in fact, would be misplaced. We need to be able to experience a range of emotions, to accept them as part of life, and to maintain motivation and interest in what life offers even when not feeling happy.

We decided that we needed to dig deeper. So, we embarked on an investigation of outcomes that were related to happiness, were valued by Jewish educators and consistent with Jewish tradition, and were developmentally malleable so that education can help promote their growth. We read, we talked to Jewish educational leaders, and we compared our notes to find out what seemed to emerge most often. The term we took to using for the project – the Quality of LifeHappiness project – though admittedly bulkier, was meant to refer to a more nuanced approach to the topic.

Four overlapping and intersecting categories emerged at the confluence of past research, the wisdom of practice, and ideas central to Judaism.

a. Sense of belonging and connectedness: Do youth have a perception that others care about their wellbeing? That they have the ability to make meaningful contributions to the well-being of others? Do they have adults who take interest in their lives in general, and in how they connect with Judaism? There are multiple levels to this: friendships, feelings of safety and camaraderie in a classroom or camp bunk, a sense of being welcome in and a productive member of a synagogue. As Jewish educators, how to we create the conditions that promote these relationships?

b. Social and emotional competence: Though various terms are used (e.g., emotional intelligence, intra- and inter-personal intelligence), there is general agreement that this area has to do with effective communication, the ability to identify one’s emotions, to empathize with others and to take their perspective, to manage strong emotions and to maintain a positive orientation even during times of stress, and to handle challenges and conflict in a productive way. Judaism touches on emotions – happiness and others – and Jewish education can help students connect with these. Social and emotional competence constitutes the foundation of what we mean by menschlekheit or derech eretz.

c. Successful intelligence/Wisdom: At the time, Robert Sternberg was articulating a view of intelligence that went beyond the usual notion of analytic skill and included creativity and the ability to apply what one knows to situations or problems in the real world. As his work evolved, the term wisdom was used to describe the optimal balancing of the various types, or elements, of identity. We saw this strongly related to the notion that Jewish learning is deeply intertwined with action in the world, and that Judaism is a source of life wisdom.

d. Sense of meaning and purpose: This is perhaps the most complex and multifaceted of the four factors. In part, this takes a sense of belonging to the next level: perceiving one’s self as part of something that is greater than one’s self, that transcends space and time. A history, a people, nature, God. It involves being able to find that which provides self-satisfaction while at the same time making the world a better place and actualizing tikkun olam. At a symposium held as part of this project, Rabbi Nancy Flam paraphrased theologian Frederick Buechner and described sense of meaning and purpose as “where your own greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”

We can – and should – imbue Jewish education with happiness. Don’t put away the snacks and games quite yet! But we should complement this by fostering the skills and dispositions needed to achieve a positive quality of life rooted in Judaism. Our day schools, congregational schools, camps etc. can help youth connect with one another and with adults, and forge positive, caring relationships; develop skills in communication, self awareness, and a lexicon of emotions; seek in Judaism the judgment and wisdom needed to negotiate life’s challenges; and provide the substrate for developing a sense of meaning and purpose. And they can do this within the context of Jewish values, traditions and texts. The happiness conversation is vitally important, yet deceptively complex. Happiness is more than a smile. It is a way of being in the world. And, in Jewish education, it is a way of experiencing that way of being through the lens of Judaism. It’s hard work … but happiness is worth it!

Note: The Quality of Life-Happiness Project leadership team consisted of Dr. Michael Ben-Avie, Audrey Lichter, Alan Mendelson, Diane Troderman, and myself. This project was funded in part by the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress is Bernard Heller Associate Professor at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. He can be reached at jekress@jtsa.edu