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If you want to be happier, should you focus on yourself or on others? In a study entitled “Do Unto Others or Treat Yourself? The Effects of Prosocial and Self-Focused Behavior on Psychological Flourishing,” Katherine Nelson and colleagues reported their research findings that doing acts of kindness for others, or for the world at large, provided a bigger boost for better mood and increased well-being than doing acts of kindness for oneself. These results align with previous research that indicates that spending money on others increases happiness levels over spending money on oneself. This stands in contrast to the more popular conception that in order to be happy, you should focus on self-care.

In one of my favorite stories, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks retells what he heard about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, when he visited him in 1968. Someone had written to the Rebbe that “I am depressed. I am lonely. I keep mitzvot but find no peace of mind. I need the Rebbe’s help.” The Rebbe’s total response to the letter was to just circle the first word of every sentence; “I.”

The word simcha, which can be roughly translated as happiness or joy, appears seven times in Parshat Re’eh. Fascinatingly, in each of the seven times, the simcha is communicated in the context of others. It is what Rabbi Sacks calls happiness shared, or collective joy. When we rejoice, it is with others present and others in mind. We share the happiness with our families and with strangers, orphans, widows, and Levites. There is no “I” in happy and the is no “I” in joy.

Yet there is another pattern amongst the seven contexts of the word simcha. Not only is simcha presented in relation to others, but as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik highlighted, it is also bound to being lifnei Hashem, before G-d. Being in the presence of G-d both obligates and generates feelings of joy. The experience of transcending the self and experiencing the Divine, provides a framework for true simcha.

This is why there is a commandment to be happy on the Three Festivals when everyone would visit the Beit HaMikdash, the place where the Divine Presence rested. It is also why the Kohen Gadol, who was in the presence of G-d every day, had a continuous obligation to be happy. Rabbi Soloveitchik developed the idea further, explaining that there is a commandment to be happy on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as well, since those are both days where we attain spiritual closeness to G-d.

It is striking that happiness is explained exclusively in the context of the other. It is only before G-d and it must be shared with other people. Focusing exclusively on the “I” to boost happiness will inevitably fall short. Rather, if we want to enhance our experience of simcha, let us look for opportunities to do for others and to become closer to G-d.


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