Trying to make sense of life and to learn living it happily.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Happiness and the Jewish Identity: ELI Talks

What skills are imperative for our kids to master to thrive in life?

How can anyone become happier?

What is the meaning of life?

And what we can learn about these questions from the rich Jewish culture?

These are the questions I discuss in my ELI Talk called "Happiness and the Jewish Identity".

I would love to know what was your reaction to the talk. Please comment and share it!


Monday, July 11, 2016

How Learning to Be Happy Is Like Learning How to Draw

My dad is very talented in drawing and painting. When I was little, he tried to teach the basics of drawing to me. But I could never draw as nice as he, and my likeness on the paper was never as good as his. I got frustrated pretty quickly. I never regarded myself as artistically inclined, and I was better at other things, so I switched my attention to them.

Years passed. Since then I only took a pencil if my kids asked me to draw a little bird or a house for them. Both my daughters take drawing classes, and we’ve got a drawing set for them – pencils, pastels, watercolors, brushes, and drawing paper.

Come summer, the set still sits pretty much untouched. Last week I decided that I want to give drawing another try, since I already have all the supplies. I went to my local library and checked out a book on basic drawing.

Here is how the author Sarah Parks introduces it:
It’s a common misconception that you have to be born with artistic talent or that only creative people can draw or paint. But in fact, drawing is a discipline just like any other, requiring learning skills and practicing techniques. And your keen desire to draw gives you the aptitude you need to study those skills and diligently practice the techniques I’m going to teach you. When you’ve practiced them consistently, you’ll really start to feel pride in your ability to draw. Suddenly, people will say, “I didn’t know you were so talented!”[i]

It is amazing that exactly the same principle applies to happiness skills! Even though each of us is born with a varied amount of “talent” for feeling happy in different circumstances, there are different happiness skills and techniques. When we learn about them and practice them, we improve our own abilities and become able to feel better.

I’ve read the first chapters carefully, learning about shapes, shadows and block-in techniques. First I drew a sphere, then a cube. And then I tried to draw from the photographs of pears and an iris from the book. And here is what I drew:

It’s not an exact likeness, but now I have more patience, and I really like to be able to draw nicely. And most importantly, now I know that even if I am not going to be a museum-worthy artist, I can definitely improve my drawing by learning some tips and practicing.

Very similarly, we can all learn tips, practice, and improve our lives by becoming happier!

I describe happiness skills and techniques in my book Happiness the Jewish Way: A Practical Guide to Happiness Through the Lens of Jewish Wisdom

[i] Drawing Secrets Revealed: Basics by Sarah Parks

Friday, June 24, 2016

Not a Cheerful Happy Person? This Post Is For You!

Art by Firestock

Do you ever notice when you are dealing with a difficult situation that you know the right way to behave, or the way you would like to react, but you still do or say something else, something you may regret later? Why does it happen? The most obvious explanation is: because this is who we are. If we know we are not usually a kind person, or a patient person, or an outgoing person, then we don’t act it.  And since our happiness depends a lot on our own behavior, then our self-identity is a deciding factor is how happy we feel.

Is there anything we can do to go around our own personality and self-identity?

There is a wise Jewish fairy tale that addresses this question.

Once there was a prince who thought he was a rooster. He spent his days sitting naked under a table in his room, refusing to eat anything except birdseed. The prince’s best friend tried to coax him from under the table to play. But the prince refused to even look at him. The prince’s favorite tutor came to talk reason with the boy and read a book to him. But the prince only turned his head to one side and cried, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” The king and the queen were distraught. They announced a reward for anyone who could cure their son.

Many people came, tried, and failed. The prince thought he was a rooster, and that was it. One day, an old man called Ezra arrived at the palace and said that he could cure the prince in a week.

Art by Art Spiegelman
As soon as he was inside the room, Ezra took off all his clothes, crawled under the table next to the prince, and began to peck at the floor. “I am a rooster too,” he said to the surprised prince. After three days sitting under the table together, pecking the birdseed, and shouting, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” they became great friends.

On the fourth day, Ezra put his cloths back on. “What are you doing?” protested the prince. “You are a rooster like me, and roosters do not wear clothes. Take them off!”

“Even though I am a rooster,” Ezra told the prince, “I prefer to wear clothes. That way I don’t feel so cold as I sit on the floor. You can do whatever you like, but this rooster is more comfortable in clothes.”

The prince thought for a while and then slowly crawled from under the table and put on his own clothes.

The next morning, the prince was pecking away at the birdseed on the floor as he and Ezra did every morning. This morning, though, Ezra fetched the breakfast tray that the palace servants had left outside the door, as they did every morning. Ezra put some food on a plate, brought it back under the table, and began to eat it.

“What are you doing?” cried the prince. “Roosters eat birdseed, not scrambled eggs and toast. That is people food, and you are a rooster. Put it back!”

But Ezra continued to enjoy the food. “I am a rooster, just like you. But roosters are free to eat whatever food they like. If you prefer the taste of birdseed, then by all means, continue to eat birdseed. But I like eggs and toast and all sorts of other foods.”

The prince thought about it and picked some food from the tray. They spent the rest of the day as usual, sitting under the table and shouting, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” But whenever a meal arrived, they brought it under the table and shared the food.

The next morning, instead of bringing the food back under the table to eat, Ezra sat on a chair at the table. After he had eaten, Ezra began to walk around the room instead of crouching under the table.

“What are you doing now?” the prince asked suspiciously. “How can you be a rooster if you eat your meals at the table and walk upright like a man?”

“Just because I am a rooster does not mean I cannot sit or move around comfortably. Is there any reason why a rooster cannot do that if he prefers it?”

“I suppose not,” the prince mumbled after taking some time to think about it. And he too sat down at the table to eat his breakfast.

That day, instead of spending his time yelling, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Ezra turned to the prince and asked, “The Sabbath begins this evening. How do you think we should celebrate it? Even though I am a rooster, I prefer to spend my Sabbath praying to God, sharing a fine meal, studying the words of the Torah, and being with my family. Would you like to join me?”

Art by Amanda Hall
There was a long silence. Then the prince said quietly, “I am still a rooster. But I would like to celebrate together with my family.”

When the king and the queen came to the room at the end of the week, the prince walked over and hugged them.

“This is remarkable!” the king exclaimed as he hugged his son in return. “How did you manage it?” he asked, turning to Ezra.

“Nothing has changed,” answered Ezra. “Your son is your son. He always has been and always will be. He’s still the same inside. The only thing that is different is the way he behaves. All I taught him is that God gives human beings the ability to make choices. No matter how we feel on the inside, we can choose to behave better than we feel.”[i]

Just like the young prince, we tend to speak and act in ways that are consistent with our self-image. If we believe we cannot do something, we can’t. If we believe we can do anything, we can. And if we believe we are happy, we are.

Even the Talmud says that God only leads a person along the path that the person wishes to follow[ii].
That is why only the fairytale prince himself had the power to change his thinking, behavior, and perception of his life. Ezra only helped to allow himself to make the choice to do so.

Whatever our personality is and whatever we believe we are, we can control our behavior (and thoughts) if we choose to. You may think you are frugal, but give to the charity. Or you may know that you are strict, but act kindly in some a situation. Or you may believe that you are not very cheerful, but still find joy in life and make yourself happy!

More practical tips on how to become happy here: http://goo.gl/LNLUrd

Happiness the Jewish Way:

 A Practical Guide to Happiness 

Through the Lens of Jewish Wisdom

[i] Adapted from Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster”, The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales (Concord, MA: Barefoot Books, 2013).

[ii] The Talmud, Makkot, 10b

Monday, June 13, 2016

How Less Freedom Can Make Us Happy: The Story of Shavuot

What makes us happy? It is different for different people. But there is one common attribute to ALL the things that make us happy – our attitude and perception toward what is happening.

It’s Shavuot, the time when Jews around the world rejoice in the receipt of the Torah.

Image from betamshalom.org (Pinterest)
I took a JLI (Jewish Learning Institute) class about it, and the teaching rabbi pointed out that before the actual receipt of the Torah Jews already knew it prophetically and kept commandments  - not because they had to, but because they wanted to. It was voluntary, out of the love and devotion to God. But once we had received the Torah on Mount Sinai, Jews became obligated to live according to the God’s law. In other words, Shavuot marks a loss of freedom. And isn’t freedom one of the most precious values for many civilized societies?

This invites the question: Why would Jews happily give up their freedom and celebrate it every year?

By the way, it still happens today. A major example of willingly and happily giving up our freedom is marriage. Why do we do that? Especially today, when the society does not require it any longer. How should parents explain the merits of marriage to their young sons and daughters? (Honestly, I’d love to hear your opinion about that.)

The rabbi proceeded to explain that the fact that God decided to mandate the Torah commandments means that it was very important to Him, otherwise He would keep things the way they were. And God entrusting this important task to the Jews makes us significant to His plans, important and special.

Image by Daf (Pinterest)
That is why it is celebrated – because every time we remember it, we also remember that we are special to God, and it makes us happy.

And that is also how a marriage works. It is a way to show to our beloved person that they are so special for us that we are willing to limit our freedom and take extra responsibilities for them, and they – for us. It is a declaration of love and significance.

When we have extra responsibilities, such as having to keep commandments, do our share in marriage, etc., we have the choice of perception. We can lament the loss of freedom, and feel gloomy or angry. Or we can focus on our significance, specialness, and loving relationships, and feel powerful, enthusiastic and happy!

This week, every time you do a chore, practice feeling happy about it by focusing on why you do it, whom do you do it for, and how it makes you special in the way you affect the lives of others!

Happy Shavuot!

More practical tips on how to become happy here: http://goo.gl/LNLUrd

Happiness the Jewish Way: 
A Practical Guide to Happiness Through the Lens of Jewish Wisdom

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Presenting my book "Happiness the Jewish Way: A Practical Guide to Happiness Through the Lens of Jewish Wisdom"

My years of research and practical application combined with a grant from COJECO of New York resulted in a self-help book "Happiness the Jewish Way: A Practical Guide to Happiness Through the Lens of Jewish Wisdom".

I include several definitions of happiness and discuss some common pitfalls in our happiness beliefs as well as how it is looked at by Jewish folk wisdom and modern science. Then I discuss the skills that together help us be a happier human being and provides easy-to-follow practical exercises for each skill.

The book is available on amazon.com here.

Watch a short interview I gave about this book here.

Join me on the Facebook page www.facebook.com/happinessthejewishway for more.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Cultivate Connection

We humans are open systems, continuously exchanging feedback with the external environment. We look well defined and finite, but our feelings, thoughts, words and actions reach far beyond the space our physical bodies occupy. No man is an island. We impact everything around us just by being. And in return we are influenced by it all. Therefore, while it is good to be introspective and self-sufficient, we flourish in connecting to the outside world and being a part of something bigger than we are.

By connecting I do not mean the polite small talk at a meeting or a Facebook account. Connection that leads to the feelings of happiness, wellbeing and, some researchers say, even health benefits is the internal feeling of a strong bond with someone or something.

People are fulfilled in all kinds of connections. One of the biggest bonds we feel is the connection to other people through love, friendship, parenthood, volunteering, work, through sports, shared hobbies and projects.

Art by Amanda Hall
Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand tells a story that showcases beautifully how people make the same circumstances into hell or heaven solely by their attitude[1]. It also shows the importance and effects of connecting with other people.

As a reward for her benevolent life, Ariella, a lamed-vavnik (one of the thirty-six people in the world who are completely good) was taken to see Hell and Heaven. In Hell she saw a magnificent palace with an opulent dining hall. The tables were filled with the most delicious food: fragrant soups, creamy cheeses, fresh vegetables, juicy fruits, and exquisite cakes. But the people in the room all looked thin, hungry and unhappy. When Ariella looked carefully, she noticed why the people did not eat the scrumptious food: they all had splints strapped to their arms so they could not bend their elbows. They could pick up the food, but there is no way of getting it into their mouths. She was sad that they sit amongst plenty but starve.
Next, the lamed-vavnik went to visit Heaven. She found herself in a beautiful palace once again. The dining hall was also laden with all kinds of fragrant and delicious dishes. And the people at the table all looked healthy and well fed. They were happy and chatted with each other as they settled down to eat the wonderful meal laid out before them. But to her surprise, Ariella noticed that everybody in Haven had exactly the same splints on their arms as the people in Hell.
Art by Amanda Hall
“Same palace, same meal, same splints, same everything,” she murmured to herself. “The same challenges and opportunities exist in Haven as in Hell. What is different?” And then Ariella saw that although the people in Haven could not bend their arms to feed themselves, they were stretching the arms to feed each other. And if food dropped from someone’s fork, or missed a person’s mouth, they simply laughed and tried again. The people had fun. No one was angry, and everyone was getting enough to eat.
Ariella understood the difference between Heaven and Hell. She returned home and told others about her visit and the lessons she has learned. “Heaven and Hell are not just placed that you go to after you die,” she would tell the children who sat at her feet. “They are also part of how each of us looks at the world every day. And people who reach out to others are already halfway to Heaven.”

Cultivating connection with others does not mean we must be friends with heaps of people. Research shows that the well-being resulting from connecting comes not from the number of friends we have, but from our internal sense of bond toward others. So it is enough to have one friend. And we we feel deeply connected to someone on the inside, we are still benefiting from that feeling even if that person is not our friend[2].

Sarah Yoheved Rigler, a prominent Jewish speaker and author, teaches that marriage is the opportunity for the deepest and the biggest connection with another human being[3]. Unfortunately, we do not always use this opportunity. At times we feel hurt and disconnected from our spouses and other family members. We get upset, frustrated and annoyed with our life partners, children and parents. And so we tarnish the deep connection with people closest to us by arguing with them, and mostly about rather inconsequential things. That puts a major hamper on our happiness.

When it happens, Ms. Rigler suggests we stop looking at the circumstances through “right or wrong” glasses, trying to make everything right every time someone else is wrong. Instead she offers to put on “connection or disconnection” glasses, when the most important is not to prove that you are right at any cost, but to stay connected with the other person. When we consciously choose connection as our ultimate goal, our behavior changes. Ms. Rigler finds that spouses who choose to cultivate connection have much happier marriages while still being able to solve any disagreement in friendly and respectful ways.

Art by AthenA-gRace
Another very powerful feeling is the connection to a higher power, to God, to the creation, the connection to spiritual plane of our world. In Judaism, being connected to HaShem (God) is the purpose of practicing the Torah Law and the true path to happiness[4]. In the highest level of yoga called Samadhi, connection with all the creation is the ultimate goal of the practitioner. Any spiritual practice cultivates connection to something bigger than us by praying, meditating, believing. Many people experience tremendous joy from these kinds of connections.

There are other important and very gratifying connections in our lives: to nature, to animals, to expression through art and music, or even to abstract ideas.
When we feel connection through loving someone, feeling strong about an idea, or believing in the higher power we get charged with energy and the motivation to do great things, as well as the satisfaction and happiness.

As with everything else in life, we must exercise moderation, a proper balance. Connecting with the wrong people or the wrong ideas may be draining or even hurtful. We need to know who and what to reach out to and what to distance ourselves from.

Feeling connected to something recharges our batteries. It is also important to enjoy solitude and be content with your own company. Maxwell Maltz, a Jewish-American doctor and author said "If you make friends with yourself you will never be alone." We cannot be harmonious beings through connection only. We need self-reliance, introspection and some quietness. Being alone can recharge our batteries as much as the feeling of connectedness. Striking the balance that is right for you promotes happiness.

  • Start by smiling. Smile to strengthen your existing bonds (with family and friends) and smile to create new ones. People are attracted to a smiling face.
  • Connect with like-minded people. You may feel that you do not have anything in common with others to develop a bond. But rest assured: there are people like you out there. And probably they feel the same way.
  • When in conflict with the closest family members, such as your spouse, your kids or your parents, ask yourself what is most important to you overall – to prove that you are clever and right or to stay connected and close. On the whole, do you want to be in the world of connection with them or in the world of estrangement? Once you decide you want to choose connection over estrangement, you may realize that disagreements can be solved without insults or bickering[5].
Art by m1kikey
  • Hugging is one of the easiest ways to connect, and a very effective one. And now it has been scientifically proven that hugging for 20 seconds releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel happier. Strengthen your bonds with hugs, you will feel happier and more content with life![6]
  • Connect through a shared project. Buddy up for activities such as exercise, going to museums, or whatever you can think of. Volunteer for your community organization. Enroll into sport teams or classes that interest you. Make the practicing of happiness skills a family project. When you share your goals, support and motivate each other, you develop a connection (and as a bonus, achieve your goals faster).
  • Connect with happy people. When we are close to content, happy people, we learn from their attitude and may begin emulating their happiness.
art by kceb14
  • If having a feeling of deep connection with other people is challenging for you, focus on other connections as discussed above.
  • Explore a connection through spirituality by going to places of worship and/or going on nature walks. Connect with the uniqueness and the preciousness of the present moment through being in awe with the vastness of the Universe, the beauty of a starry sky, or the limitlessness of the horizon[7].
  • Set time aside just for you, for being with yourself. Enjoy the solitude. Connect with the rich world inside of you. Meditate.

[1] Heaven and Hell, The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
[2] Emma M. Seppala, PhD., http://www.psycologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201304/8-powerful-ways-turn-loneliness-deep-connection
[3] Sarah Yoheved Rigler, http://www.sararigler.com
[4] Rabbi David Aaron, Living a Joyous Life: The True Spirit of Jewish Practice
[5] Kesher wife workshop by Sara Yoheved Rigler
[7] Association for Psychological Science. "Being in awe can expand time and enhance well-being." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120719161901.htm