This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
-By Shoshana Rosa
The New York Times did a three year survey on finding "The Happiest man in America" by sending around a researcher named Gallup to question over 1,000 random participants on topics like emotional health, work satisfaction and one's eating habits.
In 2010, the person discovered to correlate best with Gallup's formula for joy was an elderly Asian-American Jew living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Alvin Wong filled the spot based on his gender, age (which was sixty-five), yearly income ($120,000) and large family tree. When newspaper called him to ask how he became such a contented guy, Mr. Wong answered, "If you can't laugh at yourself, life is going to be pretty terrible." He continued the conversation, asking, "Is this a practical joke?"
While reading the article I thought, "If I was rating my state of happiness by the standard of the New York Times, I'd probably have found myself filed under 'filling out a weekly dosage for Prozac.' After all, I'm virtually penniless, female and single." Then, it occurred to to me that perhaps the pursuit of happiness in America is still a flawed endeavour. After all, according to Gallup's survey, while one's basic needs are there for the purpose of helping one reach a state of emotional well being, peace of mind seems to lean heavily on externals. Based on the statistics, men are naturally happier than women and a good income does indeed increase joy. Is my happiness doomed to rest on the lower rungs of joy if I cannot nail down the perfect outfit for a date or if, G-d forbid, I get sick?
When I read Alvin Wong's quote I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank you Mr. Wong for reminding me that happiness can be a choice and not a state of being based on the results of my efforts.
For most people, happiness seems to whisper, "If I could just get my dream job, I'd be happy," or "When I find the One, my life will be made." Is that true? I've been pining after creative writing work. when my dream job fell into my lap, I was pleased. That is, until I discovered a painful truth: writing is tough. Articles are time consuming and the process is filled with blank spaces where ideas should be. I could spend hours staring at a sheet of paper.The thrill I felt when telling people 'I'm a writer.' lasted until about two hours before my first deadline.
This doesn't mean that using externals for increasing one's happiness is a dead horse. Outside forces do bring joy, and things like family, getting food on the table and personal hygiene are huge necessities. However, keep in mind that the ecstasy following a successful moment or even after you make a purchase is often a fleeting one.
Let's get back to Alvin Wong. What made him the happiest man in America and how do we implement the Jewish ideal of simcha (the Hebrew word for joy) into our lives? In two short sentences, Alvin Wong gave us a reason to assume that he has a strong sense of self. He runs his own business and is the patriarch of a huge family yet when he was asked by Gallup what exactly brought him joy he gave a transcendental answer. Jewish philosophy says that simcha is never measured by circumstance or by outside forces but by the steps one has taken to improve his character. Alvin says, "I'm happy because I choose to laugh at myself." This means that even though he's a responsible guy, he doesn't take himself too seriously. How is he able to do this and accomplish so much at the same time? He has self worth.
The next time someone approaches you and asks, "Who are you?" notice how you reply. Do you tell him that you are a child, parent, or a citizen of the country? Do you tell him about your accomplishments or the items you've ticked off you bucket list? Then, ask yourself, "Who would I be if I couldn't measure myself by any of these things? You may find other descriptions collecting dust beneath surface: I am kind, loyal, loving, funny, sharp, determined, etc. An angry teacher can't take away your wit or optimism but you can choose to hide or throw it away depending on how you feel about yourself. G-d gave us the tools to deal with our daily challenges. Our midot (character traits), qualities like generosity, patience, kindness are not dependent on anyone else and therefore everyone has equal chance on increasing joy in his life. Each person's midot gives him his self worth. This elderly Jew from Honolulu chose to focus on his internal world as oppose to his external surroundings.
When Esther, the heroine behind the scenes in the Purim story, was taken to the palace harem to be beautified for the time she would meet the king, she refused all cosmetics. After winning the king's heart and the title of queen, Esther was asked by everyone in the Persian court what her origin of birth was. She remained silent. We don't see her trying to gain favor with anyone, not even her husband. If one of us Jews had the chance to approach her back then and ask, "Who are you?" she most likely would have answered, "I'm a Jew." We have an increase of joy on Purim because of Esther's shining example on how to live up to one's inner standards and feelings of self worth. This is the secret to inner joy.