Lots of Joy: Purim and the New Psychology of Happiness

Much has been written about the “psychology of happiness,” a new field of research into well-being and the good life. A wave of books published in the past few years have raised such issues as whether we can know what makes us happy (Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert), the implications of positive psychology in the political sphere (The Politics of Happiness by Derek Bok), and whether women’s happiness differs from that of men (Bluebird by Ariel Gore). Gilbert, Bok, and Gore posit that happiness is something that can be attained, albeit with a bit of hard work, if we better understand our own mental processes. In response, a counter-genre has emerged from those who question whether the pursuit of happiness is really such a good thing after all (Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich and Against Happiness by Eric Wilson). It seems that there was hardly an issue of the 2009 New York Times Book Review that did not feature some book on happiness, or, more reflexively, an article about the genre of happiness books. Happiness is hip these days, as I could not help noticing when I began preparing for the upcoming holiday of Purim.

“When the month of Adar enters, we increase in happiness,” the Talmud teaches (Taanit 29a). This is a slogan that appears all over Jerusalem at this time of year, as many of the city’s storefronts are converted into costume bazaars (pirates, cowboys, fairies, and butterflies – the standard fare) and the stands in the shuk that sold dried fruit for Tu Bishvat now feature mini candy bars and Gummy Everything for inclusion in mishloach manot packages. When you walk into any of these shops you hear the same recording of happy voices singing “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’simchah,” like the ubiquitous Jingle Bells of American Decembers. Happiness, you might conclude, is plastic sunglasses and glitter and colorful wigs. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Happiness is indeed about costumes and mishloach manot. Because if Purim is about being happy, then the mitzvot of Purim must give some indication of what Judaism’s conception of happiness is all about. And so while I’m no happiness guru (I wake up most mornings wishing I could fall through the floor), it seems to me that Purim has something to teach us about how we might stumble on happiness.

For one, happiness is about community. Sitting alone at home and reading books about happiness is not going to make you happy. But going to daven with a minyan to hear the megillah just might bring you a little closer. All the mitzvot of Purim involve other people; they must be performed in a communal context. To give gifts to the poor you must put yourself in a situation where you have contact with poor people; to send mishloach manot you must have friends to whom you can send them; to enjoy a the festive Seudah meal there must be others with whom to share it; and even the megillah reading is supposed to be read publicly, and in synagogue. The Jewish conception of happiness, as we learn from the mitzvot of Purim, is about surrounding yourself with other people, and involving yourself in their lives.

This is a lesson I was reminded of not long after the start of Adar, when I returned to my regular daf yomi morning shiur after a two-month honeymoon hiatus. My general tendency is to wake up feeling sad and dark, regardless of what is going on in my life. As the day unfolds, I tend to get progressively happier, and sometimes in the evenings I am positively giddy – until the next day dawns and the demons are back. But I’ve noticed that returning to daf yomi has had the magical effect of jump-starting my happiness. I love waking up knowing that I have a place to go, and that if I don’t jump out of bed at that very moment, I won’t make it in time. I love arriving at the shiur and seeing a host of familiar faces who take note of my presence and will wonder if I don’t show up one day. In short, I like starting my day as part of a community. Perhaps this is why we are supposed to daven with a minyan every morning – to remind ourselves, first thing, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. And perhaps this is why all the major mitzvot of Purim, the happiness holiday, must be performed in the presence of others.

The customs of Purim, too, offer lessons in being happy. On Purim we dress in costume so that we do not look or feel like ourselves. Part of being happy is about forgetting who we are, or tricking ourselves into thinking that we can be somebody or something else. This custom reflects the awareness that it is difficult to make ourselves happy unless we can, at least in part, forget ourselves. This is surely what lies behind the custom of drinking alcohol – it is a desire to shed some of our inhibitions and our painful self-awareness. Purim reminds us that happiness is just sadness dressed in borrowed robes. We wear painted clown masks over our furrowed brows and can’t help smiling as we see our friends in their own silly disguises. Perhaps this is why Keats invokes the image of the veil to describe the close kinship between happiness and melancholy:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.

Delight is just veiled melancholy, and Purim is the day we put on the veil and peer out at the world through it.

Purim, though, is not the only occasion for happiness in Judaism. At three points in the Torah we are commanded to be happy (Lev. 23:40, Deut. 16:14, Deut 17:15). Like Mishenichnas Adar, this mitzvah, associated with Sukkot, also becomes a holiday jingle: V’samachta b’chagecha v’hayita ach sameach. Why “ach sameach”? Why not just “sameach”? Perhaps the Torah is teaching that we have to be happy even in spite of ourselves. We must be happy on demand, like the bright yellow “Don’t worry be happy” bumper stickers of the happy hippies. But as we all know, emotions cannot be mandated – we cannot force ourselves to feel a certain way. And so it seems that in the Torah, happiness is not a feeling but rather a way of acting. “V’hayita ach sameach” – you must act happy! Because to act happy is to be happy, in spite of, ach, how you might otherwise feel.

I have tried, over the years, to internalize this Jewish concept of happiness. No matter how sad or dark I am feeling, I always dance up a storm on Simchat Torah. I am convinced that if I circle just a bit faster, I’ll be so dizzy that I’ll manage to lose my bearings entirely. On Purim, too, I force myself to come up with ridiculously obscure costumes to delight my fellow Gemara-learning friends, even if the last thing I want to do on that day is dress up (or even get dressed at all). I regularly smile and act cheerful and try to greet everyone I meet with a sunny disposition, regardless of how I am feeling inside. It is, to some extent, an act, but I don’t think it’s disingenuous. I am aware that I stand the best chance for being happy if I act like a happy person.

On Purim we are commanded to take this to an extreme. We have to force happiness upon ourselves, acting happy so that we become happy. We act a certain way and, in so doing, we transform our emotional state. This process of acting as a means to feeling reminds me of the famous midrash in Masechet Shabbat about how God held Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Israelites like a bucket until they accepted Torah:

“And they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says: This teaches that God forced the mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, very well; and if not, this mountain will be your grave….. Rava said: Even so, they upheld accepted it upon themselves in the days of Achashvosh. (Shabbat 88a)

Torah, like happiness, was not easy to take on. The Jews accepted happiness under coercion, much as we “force” ourselves, through our observance of the mitzvot of Purim, to act happy. But the end result was that by Purim, the Jews found themselves accepting Torah out of their own volition. So too may we find ourselves, on Purim, surprised by joy – dancing to a rhythm we didn’t know we had, and joking with people we wouldn’t have presumed to claim as friends. For those whose natural tendency is to go about the world somber and pensive and heavy with the weight of the world, Purim looms overhead like a very scary mountain indeed. For this one day alone, let us wear that mountain on our heads like a clown hat, casting our lots with those who are off making merry.

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