What Exactly do we mean by “Happiness”?

By Michelle Shapiro Abraham

We have been talking a lot about “happiness” in Jewish education lately. Let’s begin by owning that the term “happiness” is challenging. In our vernacular it has a shallow and trivial connotation. As Toni Morrison, speaking to college graduates, said: “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough.”

When we talk about “happiness” as a new thrust for Jewish education, as suggested by Dr. David Bryfman and Dr. Scott Aaron, what are we actually talking about? The scientific field of Positive Psychology uses the term “authentic happiness” or “flourishing” for the very reason I shared above. Different than a superficial and fleeting happiness, flourishing is defined by Fredrickson & Losada in American Psychologist as living “within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.” This isn’t a shallow happiness – it is a deep and connected awareness not only of ourselves but of everyone around us.

Prior to the field of Positive Psychology and studies around growth mindset, scientist believed that either you were a positive, optimistic and happy person, or you were not. However, with these new studies, psychologists now believe that the ability to flourish is not only something innate from birth but that we can actually be taught to flourish.

When we bring this belief in to the field of Jewish education, we make the assertion that not only can we teach our learners to flourish but also that Judaism has inherent strategies and tools for doing this teaching. As Jewish educators and youth professionals, we must ask a new question: How can we teach in a way that leads our learners to truly flourish as human beings and for them to see Judaism as a key piece of this flourishing existence?

We must offer learning not only for education and enculturation but also in service of developing a deep and abiding happiness within the individuals themselves. When we approach Judaism this way, we teach not only for the sake of continuing the faith or repairing the world, but also because we believe that living a Jewish life makes you a happier, more fulfilled, and better person. As my colleagues have pointed out, this is a radical shift from how we have historically understood Jewish engagement and education.

Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, noted scholar in Positive Psychology, gives the acronym PERMA as a framework on how to teach this authentic happiness – Positive Emotion; Engagement; Relationships; Meaning; and Achievement. This framework can help us understand what this approach could look like in our Jewish settings.

PPositive Emotion

Positive Emotions are the most obvious of the PERMA framework. Seligman makes the differentiation between pleasure and enjoyment as positive emotions that lead to authentic happiness. Pleasure relates to bodily needs like hunger or thirst, while enjoyment comes from intellectual stimulation and creativity. Enjoyment is true joy, and like Heschel’s “radical amazement,” it embraces wonder and beauty in the world. Enjoyment is climbing to the top of the tower and screaming the “shehechianu” with your cabin; it’s laughing at an inside joke with your youth group. True enjoyment is also about being intellectually challenged, such as the joy that comes from struggling to translate a line of Torah and the moment of recognition when we understand what our text is trying to convey.

As Jewish educators, when we teach Judaism through this lens, we ask:

  • What opportunities am I creating for participants to feel radical amazement? What language am I giving them for understanding and blessing these moments of wonder?
  • How am I challenging my learner? When does he/she feel authentic joy in the learning?
  • What opportunities am I creating for joy and play in Jewish life?
  • How do we teach gratitude and encourage awareness of the many gifts bestowed upon us?


Positive Psychologists use the term “flow” when explaining the level of engagement that leads to authentic happiness. Flow is blissful immersion in a task or activity. We experience flow in many ways – when we lose track of time while singing a niggun; or while engrossed in conversation with the rabbi; or building a house with Habitat for Humanity and get lost in the rhythm of hammering the nails.

As Jewish educators, when we teach Judaism through this lens, we ask:

  • What communal opportunities are we creating for learners to “get lost in”?
  • When am I providing deep, engaging learning that leaves the learner joyous and fulfilled?
  • When do I offer opportunities for my learner to integrate activities that he/she loves into our Jewish learning? When do they drive the learning with strategies they are passionate about?


Our tradition teaches that when two friends study Torah, the Shechina (Presence of God) dwells among them. When Positive Psychologists teach about relationships, they are referring to these kinds of deep meaningful relationships, the ones so holy that God dwells among them. In Jewish life, there are two authentic relationships that we work to foster – mentors and friends/peers.

The Search Institute uses the term “developmental relationships” to describe those mentoring relationships we know to be sacred – between a rebbe and his students, a really good camp counselor and her bunk, a youth group advisor who guides her teens to become their best selves.

We also foster friendships that hold us up when we don’t have the strength to stand and celebrate with us in times of joy. Jewish education offers our learners a Jewish community they can rely on – the friends who will dance at their weddings, travel to meet their new babies, and hold them in their grief.

As Jewish educators, when we teach Judaism through this lens, we ask:

  • What am I doing to ensure that the participants truly get to know each other and learn to depend on one other?
  • How am I building authentic relationships with my learners and supporting them in reaching their full potential?
  • What scaffolding am I putting in place to help my community support one another in times of joy and times of sadness?


In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, Holocaust Survivor and noted psychologist, explains, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” When positive psychologists speak of meaning, they refer to a deep belief that we each can impact the world. This work is not easy and it often takes sacrifice, challenging us to be more than we imagined we could be. We feel this sense of meaning when marching on Washington and standing up for vulnerable populations; when youth group members give their day to make food and serve it to the needy; when we attend a shiva minyan because we know our presence is needed.

As Jewish educators, when we teach Judaism through this lens, we ask:

  • What opportunities are we creating for authentic meaning making, whether through learning that helps us see larger connections or hands-on, truly impactful justice work?
  • What opportunities do we have for participants to create and own their experience, empowered to be creators and not just consumers of making meaning?
  • How do we talk about and model being responsible for one another?
  • How do we help our learners find power in discomfort and push themselves to pursue a higher cause?


Achievement in Positive Psychology is not only the achievement itself but also celebrating the achievement and drawing strength from it. This is the child who was crying the first two days of camp but overcomes the sadness to enjoy the full two weeks; this is studying for bar mitzvah in a way that is appropriately challenging and the pride you feel upon being called to the Torah. Achievement is remembering that we, as a Jewish people, have been through so much and yet continue to thrive.

As Jewish educators, when we teach Judaism through this lens, we ask:

  • What opportunities do we have for meaningful, truly challenging achievement and how do we celebrate those accomplishments?
  • What opportunities do we have for learners to define their own desires and help them achieve their own goals?
  • How do we teach Jewish text and history so that our generation can draw strength from past generations?

In Psalm 100:2, we learn, “Praise God with joy! Come before God with song!” There, at the root of our tradition, is joy – simcha. We’re guided not by the superficial happiness and joy we often speak of in our modern world but the deep abiding joy and happiness that Positive Psychology points to. Unfortunately, we sometimes give up this this joy in our Jewish educational settings. We forget the entire reason we are teaching the text, history, and prayers is that so that our students can find joy and meaning. It is from this place of authentic happiness that our students can feel safe and motivated to move forward and create a more whole, just, and compassionate world.

When people ask me why I believe camp is so successful as an education model, I suggest that success is more than the setting. I believe it is, as Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman teaches, the “joyful Judaism” that permeate these settings that makes camp so effective. Freed from the obligation to teach certain materials and the expectations of formal schooling, camps easily embrace the joy and authentic happiness that comes from learning something new and challenging, making true friends, finding mentors, feeling like you are a part of something bigger than yourself, and marking moments of radical amazement with unbridled singing and celebration.

In all out Jewish education settings, it is time to reclaim this joyful Judaism and embrace the symbols, stories and rituals of Jewish life to help us personally flourish and communally heal this complicated, modern world.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham is the Director of Learning and Innovation for URJ Youth and a consultant with the Foundation for Jewish Camp.  She is a graduate of Hebrew Union College- JIR Rhea Hirsch School of Education and the proud recipient of a 2015 Covenant award.