The Ten Happiness Principles #4

#4  Discover meaning

As I stated earlier, I really have little idea how many ask the hard questions such as ’Why am I here?’, ‘What do I want to achieve with my whole life?’, ‘What are my greatest gifts/abilities and how could I best use them?’, and even perhaps, ‘How do I want others to remember me – would who and what I am right now be ok, or do I have work to do on myself and my life?’

But finding meaning is essential to a fulfilled life.

A life lived without meaning, without purpose is an empty life.

Many speak of the feeling of emptiness when they awake from some very hedonistic life experiences. Some though never ‘wake up’ but continue to pursue hedonistic pleasures in the hope, it seems, of finding this fulfillment, this lack of emptiness.

This may work for a while, but most anecdotal evidence from the older and hopefully wiser amongst us, would suggest such ‘fulfillment’ through hedonistic, self-gratifying activities, is not long-lasting.

It seems meaning is found when we reach out to help others.

We have all heard the saying ‘it is better to give than receive’, yet is this true?

On reflection, do we grow when we give, do we grow when we teach others; when we support others, when we praise and uplift others. I think we do, but we all need to reflect individually on this I think, and answer the question from our own life experiences.

Men and woman have the gift of free will. But in being free to make choices, we inevitably need to reflect on those choices. If over time our ‘big’ choices; our significant and life-defining choices don’t end up adding much meaning to our lives, then it seems almost inevitable as well that an emptiness will result, a void where meaning should be.

For example, raising children clearly adds great meaning to our lives.

Being a parent is among the most meaningful things any of us can ever do. Yes, having children is expensive, time-consuming, very stressful, very tiring and emotionally draining. If we were to rationally analyse the social, environmental and economic benefit I think it would be found wanting.

And yet, parenthood changes us – it changes our priorities, our perspective and our future goals and aspirations.

This is because it adds meaning. In fact, it almost forces meaning down our thoughts!

We are changed before we have changed our 1000th nappie! Parenthood generally makes us WANT to be better people.

Therefore children bring meaning, though in some ways they may actually reduce our happiness. This may seem counter-intuitive, but children tend to make our lives more of a roller-coaster. They give us greater highs, and also greater lows. Our babies first step is a joy to experience, and at the opposite end of the scale holding your screaming son just after he has slammed several of his fingers in the car door, and they have turned black, is not a moment of much happiness.

If the Almighty has not blessed you with children, or your children have long since ‘flown the nest’, you may need to seek other ways to find meaning and hence happiness. Helping others is always meaningful, whether it’s ‘Meals of Wheels’, being a volunteer fire-fighter or just teaching introductory phone skills to the newbies among the over 60’s. Any such activities both develop relationships and bring worth to your life. This gives your life purpose outside of yourself and this in turn brings a peace and contentment that you are making a difference.

If you feel you don’t have a lot of meaning in your life, do some deep introspection – seek out what activity would really stimulate you to get heavily involved and be passionately present. Then go for it and embrace it – ignore the hurdles and rejections you may face until you are doing something that you are confident has real meaning.

Now re-evaluate your happiness.

I would suggest though that the greatest meaning can be found in seeking and doing the will of our Father in Heaven. He promises us that if we delight ourselves in Him, and His will in this world, He will give us the desires of our hearts.

Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give your the desires of your heart’ Psalms 37:4

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The Ten Happiness Principles #3

#3) Spend Time with your Family:

Perhaps one of the easiest and yet potentially the most neglected of these ‘happiness principles’.

We live with our family so surely it is only natural that we spend plenty of time with them?

The truth though is often that we may inhabit the some physical zone, yet not really connect spiritually and emotionally as much as we should.

Sitting and watching television together may be better than nothing but if what we watch is not engaging our intellects and emotions, and in particular not leading to conversation or deep discussions on issues that matter, then perhaps we may as well be watching the TV with the pet dog or cat.

Sometimes, perhaps even often for some, there needs to be a conscious decision to pause from every day life and really engage with our spouse or children or parents about things that matter.

Your family can be both the most mundane part of your existence and the most precious. It can be so easily taken for granted and so terribly missed when ‘it’ or some part of it is no longer present.

The family is the core of the community or tribe and the community or tribe is the core of the nation. The importance of family should not be understated, but how does ‘family’ make you happy?

I once related a story about looking after my youngest toddler to a group which included an unmarried Christian man  with no children. He appreciated the challenge of the story I related, but then asked this very question.

First, the story:

I was home alone with our youngest boy (around 3-4 years old). He had fallen asleep at last on the couch. I picked him up and carried him to his bed. Just as I was about to put him down on the bed, this sleeping boy projectile vomited over himself and me, the floor, and the bed! I stood there like a stunned mullet for a moment in a  state of self-pity!

I wanted to cry help; I wanted someone to come and help me deal with the situation, but I was the only one there. After a few seconds my self-pity party was over and I thought, what do I do now. I then took us both to the bath; cleaned him up; put him to bed in another bed and proceeded to clean up the bedroom, and all our clothes, etc.

So my unmarried 40+ year old friend asked, how does that make you happier! How can such challenges of parenthood bring greater happiness than being single and much more in control of your life.

Ans the answer? It needs to be experienced. It can’t be read in a book or blog. All of those difficult moments with your children mix together with the good and great moments so that somewhere, at some time, you realise that your life is so much more rewarding and meaningful, because you are a parent, and that your child’s smile or cuddle or kind and appreciative words can make you obscenely happy!

Another short family story:

My oldest children attended the same school where I taught for many years. Some 3 – 4 years after the third one had finished high school, the oldest three and I attended a school reunion down on the Gold Coast. We booked an apartment for the night and had a fantastic time together at the reunion. A week later a card arrived from one of my children thanking me for joining them at the reunion and also thanking me with the most beautiful words for being their Dad.

When I read that card, I was happy, very, very happy – to the point where the sentiments in that card of thanks made the 25 odd years of raising these children seem of so worth it.

As I said, such happiness is hard to quantify, it is hard to describe – it needs to be experienced.

I recently thanked my children and tried to offer a little advice. Here is some of what I wrote to them:

“… So I now wish to offer a birthday present of sorts to <the birthday boy> and all my children and grand-children:

While I wish in many ways I could have given you all lots of material things and lots of money, I turned down the opportunity to be rich when it was presented to me, as I guess I sensed that such material wealth was not that important. 

“I instead believe that the best things any of us can give our children are values to live by, ideals to aspire to, an identity so that they know who they are, and a religious and moral heritage to guide them through the wilderness of time.

Children grow to fill the space we create for them, and if it’s big, they will walk tall. 

Ideals are big; material possessions are small. 

Ideals are what make life meaningful. 

People may envy others for what they earn or own, but they admire others
for what they are and what principles they live by – and it’s better to be admired than to be envied.” (paraphrasing Rabbi Sacks)

I have tried to demonstrate these truths with my life and example. 

I have tried to give you all plenty of space to grow; I have tried to give you values to live by and the knowledge of the Almighty to support you as that invisible anchor that both grounds you, but also gives you the confidence to soar as high and as far as your heart and desire can take you.

As imperfect as I am, and as unable to guarantee anything at all in your tomorrow, I have tried to be a living role-model of justice and compassion, of over-flowing love and charity. 

I have tried to show you the importance of forgiveness, so that in learning to forgive, we too might receive forgiveness as there will always be times when we also need it.

I hope and pray that I have not failed you in my role as the Almighty’s representative in your lives toward adulthood, and for all of you who are now adults, I hope I can still be a little of a role-model for how you all raise your beautiful children so that they too might walk tall with courage and faith in our heavenly Father, the Creator of the Universe.

If I can give you a motto to live by it would be twofold: ‘Live, Give and Forgive’ and also ‘Deeds matter more than Creeds’. While neither of these are direct quotes from the Great Book, they are lessons derived from it.

Also add these few Bible verses: Micah 6:8; Matt 23:23b; Matt 12:50; Ecc 12:13 and Ps 37:4.

And I guess my greatest hearts desire is that we will all be present at the first Sukkot of the Coming Age, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as the Kingdom of God fully dawns.”

I believe my family has brought me much happiness – I hope this short letter somehow demonstrates that a little.

But you may ask, what are some other practical examples to help embrace family and find that inherent happiness?

Again, it seems to me that one of the best examples of how to do this is the Jewish Sabbath.

While Christianity may have tried to embrace the 4th Commandment, it seems they have mostly failed to see the great depth and connectedness that the Seventh Day brings to Jewish families, Jewish communities and of-course to their relationship with the Almighty.

The significance of the Sabbath to the very survival of the Jewish family and nation is summed up in the famous saying ‘More than Israel has keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel’.

I have written at some length on the value of the Sabbath in a number of places such as here.

The Sabbath makes families central; this in turn makes communities vital and alive. But most importantly, the Sabbath is not a duty but a joy!

The Ten Happiness Principles: #2

Continuing with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ten Happiness Principles, we come to number 2, Praise.

We don’t praise the good efforts of others enough.

We lift them, and in turn, ourselves when we praise something that someone else has done.

If we have an appreciative attitude to the blessing of life that we have been given, if we can awake and be thankful that we have awaken, surely we can be more attentive to those around us when they do something that helps us or helps someone and in turn show that we have noticed by praising them.

Obviously, praise needs to be genuine, but often being genuine only requires a change of perspective.

Just consider the last person you spent a few minutes interacting with. Had they done anything today that helped make your life easier or more comfortable or successful, or perhaps had you observed them do this for someone else.

If so, say so!

Praise is a boomerang!

The more we all try to give praise to others the more it will come back on us and in turn lift our spirits and encourage us to try even more to help others.

Appropriate and honest praise is important. So while praising others may bring us happiness, when it comes to praising our children, there are some important points to consider, as  Marnie Winston-Macauley points out:

Five Principles of Healthy Praise

The positive power of praise is well documented. As children grow, they need emotional feedback to mirror who they are. Praise is one way they learn about themselves. When they learn honest, specific positives, they develop confidence and esteem.

But lavishing general, over-reaching praise often has the opposite effect, setting the child up for unrealistic and fraudulent expectations. Telling a child: “You’re a wonderful, son,” “You’re the most honest person I know,” “You’re Mommy’s little angel,” “It’s always such a pleasure to be around you,” “You’re one great artist, writer, [fill in the blanks]. “You’re so smart, there’s nothing you can’t do,” they all sound like confidence boosters, but in fact, they land like “dares.”

These dares set up impossible standards. Parents may hope it’s true but our children know it’s not. After all, who could live up to such overwhelming kudos?

Praise is a lot like medicine. The right amount and type at the right time can restore and contribute to our child’s well-being. But too much of the wrong kind or given at the wrong time and we’ve got one sick puppy for whom the praise:

  1. is inaccurate and won’t jibe with his or her own self-view.
  2. raises anxiety as he feels like not only a fraud, but, like little David, one who may quickly lose his halo if he’s “found out.”
  3. could lead to impossible self-expectations. “I’m perfect or nothing,” then becomes the emotional compass.

So how can we praise without “punishing?”

#1: Praise realistic achievement specifically

“Thanks for helping me clean the basement. It looks like new,” or “You followed the recipe, and we all really enjoyed your cookies,” instead of “What a terrific cleaner or cook you are” telegraphs our children did a fine job, without raising anxiety by expecting them to be Bob Vila or Martha Stewart. Letting children know what they’re actually achieving offers a realistic emotional mirror. The message they hear? “My work really paid off! I did something new, and I can learn, listen, follow directions. It was fun, my family appreciated me. I feel sooo grown up and can’t wait to do more.”

#2: Praise proportionally

Proportion in any excellent recipe is critical. Too much sweet (praise) is as unhealthy as too much salt (criticism). Our child cleans her room well. It’s her job and her challenge. She deserves the simple, honest, recognition, not a marching band. We all want our children to own their real accomplishments, and not become “sugar junkies.”

#3: Praise in the here and now without prophesizing or readying your mantel for a Nobel Prize

In the Siddur we say each morning, “A person must always acknowledge the truth and speak truth in his heart.” Over-praising is a fundamental “untruth” and, despite well-intentioned praise, our children know they’re not deserving of all that glory. Not only do they feel the stress, they start to doubt themselves, and us. 

Ironically, hyper-praise can cause our children to either shut down, or become competitive at all costs. On the other hand, specific, proportional praise encourages children to believe in the value of a job well done.

#4: Helpful praise allows the child to infer the truth about himself and his character

Saying, “I really appreciate you telling me I gave you a five dollar bill instead of a one,” beats, “You’re always so honest!” by letting children get the idea – for themselves – that honesty is a positive quality, one they can and should continue as an ethical standard that is important, noted, and respected.

#5: Praise a good attempt, as well as accomplishment.

“Wow! An 85 in math. That was a tough test. And I know you were worried about it. This grade shows you really put a lot into it and it paid off!” tells the child effort and perseverance are more important than instant success.

Useful praise supports positive reality, acts as an accurate emotional mirror, and lets the child develop self-knowledge and ethics. With these character traits, children can then grow and mature with true confidence – confidence they’ve earned, and confidence they can trust.  – see http://www.aish.com/f/p/How_to_Praise_Your_Children.html

I would argue that Marnie’s wisdom here can also be applied to our interactions with other adults.

We need to find the opportunities to give praise, but it must be honest, specific, proportional and an invitation to critical self-reflection, rather than a conclusion and end in itself.

Next: The Ten Happiness Principles #3

The Ten Happiness Principles: #1

Finding Happiness and Finding God: 

One of the greatest minds of this era, and one of the greatest thinkers in Judaism is, in my opinion, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (the very recently retired, Chief Rabbi of London). He gives what he believes are the top ten most important things we can do to find happiness. I wish to give his top ten and expand a little on each one through the next 10 short blog posts.

Some research studies have shown the Westerners, despite years of improving economic conditions, are generally no more happy than they were, and continue to seek the answers to their lack of happiness, through the masses of pop psychology offerings.

Research does appear to suggest that the wealthier people are, the happier they are (to some degree at least) and yet, research also seems to suggest that when adults have children they end up being less happy!!?

Given all the significant challenges of trying to quantify such as elusive emotion, or state of being, as happiness, perhaps we shouldn’t rely to heavily on such research!

At the same time, we all can reflect on our own personal experiences and on anecdotal evidence from the life experiences of our closest family members and friends, and how their happiness has changed through various significant life events.

For example, I saw first-hand how someone, very close to me, overcame a life-time of severe depression by taking on a job which involved taking significant responsibility for the welfare of vulnerable members of society.

I believe that these 10 Happiness Principles are 10 action steps which are foundational to a good and happy life.

Happiness Principle #1:  Give thanks:

Being appreciate for what we have is always a good approach that demonstrates a good attitude. There seems no question that those who are appreciative for whatever good, no matter how small or great, that comes their way, are generally much more content with their lives, and hence less jealous of others and consequently happier.

Part of this appreciation is the recognition that we normally have no control over the circumstances, or country, or economic state we are born and grow up in, but as adults, we do have control over how we respond to our personal circumstances.

As Rabbi Sacks states it: “For it is not what happens to us on which our happiness depends.  It depends on how we respond to what happens to us.” 

Of-course, that’s easy for him to say!  In reality, the practice of a good attitude is never easy!

To awake and start the day by being thankful that you have the day, that you are alive is a great start. Even being thankful that your normal bodily functions are working helps to engender a sense of calm and serenity.

The first waking prayer of Judaism fits this mold. It states: “I thank You, living and eternal King, who has restored my soul in mercy. Thank You, God, for giving me back my life.”

Giving thanks to the Almighty is a very common refrain in the Psalms. Just a few examples are Ps 7:17. 9:1.18:49, 30:4, 33:2, 35:18. 44:8, 45:17, 53:9, 54:6. 57:9. 75:1, 79:13 and so on.

The wording of Psalm 107:1 is often repeated: Give thanks to YHVH, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.”

This attitude or thankfulness is also quite common in the Apostle Paul’s writings. For example see 1 Thessalonians 5: 14-18

“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Messiah Yeshua for you.

If  you take the time to read through just some of the many Psalms that speak of giving thanks you will also see what Happiness Principle #2 is.

Next: Happiness Principle #2

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu (Listen) – Deuteronomy 32:1 – 52

“This week we read the Song of Moses, one of Moses’ final speeches to the Children of Israel before his death. The only other words Moses speaks to the nation after this are the words of blessing in Deuteronomy Chapter 33.

But in Deuteronomy Chapter 32, Moses composes a long poem in which he praises G-d, discusses His relationship with His people and reviews historical events, some of which are revealed prophetically to him but have not yet occurred.

I would like to focus on two verses, each of which carry messages which speak to me in an especially relevant way.

“Remember the days of old, understand the years of each generation” (Deut. 32:7). Moses instructs his people to remember their history. In referring to the days of old, he hearkens back as far as Creation – remember the events of the universe from its very beginnings. Understanding the years of a generation implies a deeper comprehension of events, of people, of their actions and the consequences of those actions.

Moses understands what so few people understand today – that we are unable to understand our present if we don’t understand our past. If we don’t understand the ways of nature and the origins of the universe, and especially the fact that the universe was created by G-d, we will never be able to comprehend our role as human beings – to serve our Creator.

And if we don’t evaluate the events of history, the expectations G-d has from the Jewish people and from all peoples, His judgment over them and the consequences of our actions, then we will be doomed to failure every time.

The second verse that I find meaningful is Deut. 32:15 “And Yeshurun (a name for Israel) grew fat and kicked…then he forsake G-d who created him.” When life is good and blessings are abundant – then it is easy for Israel to forsake G-d, to forget that the source of our blessings is His generosity. When we are in trouble, it is natural to cry out for help. But when things are good, we tend to brag and attribute our success to our efforts alone. We forget that it is G-d who has blessed us, that it is He who created us, and to Him we owe our gratitude.

If all of Israel, if all of the world, would turn to Him in the height of our prosperity, the world would be a better place. The western world is a wealthy world and a secular world indeed.

If all of Israel remembered the lessons of history with regard to our conflict with the Arabs, and if our entire nation remembered that it is G-d who has created us and who is responsible for our blessings, we would all hold on to the gift He has given us and never let go. We would all treasure Biblical Israel forever.”

– Sondra Oster Baras, CFOIC, Samaria, Israel

Today in Australia (September 7th 2013) we have a National Election. We have been greatly blessed here and just like Israel, we have forgotten the source of our blessings. As we vote, we demonstrate as a nation whether we still have any small sense and appreciation of our Creator and His Grace towards us.

While it is difficult to choose who to vote for, as we are all imperfect men and woman, as are the political parties, there are though still some clear choices in who NOT to vote for.

We should not vote for those who reject the sanctity of life (through supporting abortion and euthanasia for example). Also we should not vote for those who would support such people and such parties (with their preferences for example).

May HaShem have mercy on us!