“If you want to be joyful, you create the joy.”
— Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Betty Cherniak is happy.
She defines her happiness as “the intersection of serenity and peacefulness.”
And she has a chevra that feels the same way.
Each Tuesday evening a group of about 10 to 12 Happiness Club members meet at the Enoch Pratt Library on Reisterstown Road across from kosher restaurants Tov Pizza and Kosher Bite. Cherniak coordinates the local club; there are Happiness clubs all over the nation and the world, with at least three in Israel.
“Happiness is an inner state of well-being that enables you to profit from your highest thoughts, intelligence, wisdom, awareness, common sense, emotions, health and spiritual values,” wrote Lionel Ketchian, who founded the first Happiness Club 13 years ago.
Cherniak found her way to the concept of the Happiness Club after reading Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book, “Conversation with Yourself.”
On what she calls a “whim,” Cherniak placed Rabbi Pliskin’s name in a Google search; that led her to the Happiness Club website.
More than a year ago, with her children grown and now young adults, she found herself at work and bored. She remembered then some of the words from “Conversation with Yourself.”
“It’s all about self-talk,” she said. “Something about that book hit me. I realized the power of our own thought process and how powerful that concept is.”
Rabbi Pliskin’s name was connected in her search to Ketchian, who writes of how he started on a search of how to become a happy person.
“Someday, somehow, he heard about Rabbi Pliskin,” said Cherniak. “Rabbi Pliskin had started the Joy Club of Jerusalem.”
Many Happiness Clubs schedule monthly meetings. But when it came to Baltimore, Cherniak decided to hold her Happiness Club meetings weekly. She asked her husband to help her put up one flyer, and two people came to her very first meeting. The group has now grown to 10 to 12 people.
“There’s a lot of personal interaction,” she said about the meetings. “We’re pretty open with one another. Nobody is ever expected to go beyond their own level of comfort. And people seem to be getting a lot out of it. For me, it’s a personal support group. It’s enabled me to be on this happiness journey. My goal is for my default state to be happy.”
Cherniak said that when a person becomes unbalanced, it leaves the door open for worry, anxiety and depression. She said that is hard to avoid, especially with the often negative impact of our surroundings. She also said happiness starts with a positive thought and not from the external.
“We’re so trained by life’s experiences such as the media and the constant message that youth, beauty and acquiring wealth makes a person happy. We’re immersed in it. The principle of happiness is to not be dependent on outside circumstances,” Cherniak said.
And happiness affects both the inside and the outside.
“Happiness is like sunshine,” she said. “It’s completely not selfish. People who are unhappy are almost entirely selfish.”
Club meetings recognize that. While Cherniak admitted that some people who come to the meetings “have issues,” the “regulars” have so much experience working with happiness that they can better handle life’s challenges.
“I feel so much more powerful over my own life now than I did before,” she said. “To be a happy person, you have to take full responsibility for your life. The only true power you have in your life is up to you. People who are drawn to the Happiness Club want to be happy. They are sick and tired of being unhappy or miserable.”
This point is driven home on an online video, in which Rabbi Pliskin teaches a packed Fairfield, Conn., conference room some basic principles he teaches about happiness.
“When we realize that life is now, we can create a state of now,” he said. “We can tell a story of what was, and then we will tell about the future or what might be. But the only reality is now. It makes the whole job of being joyful easy, because all you have to do is be joyful now. I can choose to be joyful now.”
There are several steps we need to follow to be happy, said Rabbi Pliskin, who lives in Israel but is originally from Baltimore.
Rabbi Pliskin’s father had been a student of the Chofetz Chaim at the Radum Yeshiva in Poland. Rabbi Pliskin wrote about explaining the Chofetz Chaim’s teachings, “Guard Your Tongue.”
He said that people need to learn to “be grateful now. I can hear, I can see, I can walk and talk. I feel good. Ask yourself what am I grateful for now?”
Rabbi Pliskin encouraged viewers to “speak and act joyfully and with kindness. If you want to be joyful, you create the joy.”
Rabbi Pliskin said that people spend way too much time worrying. And worrying, he said, is nothing but imagination.
“You are imaging things that [most likely won’t] happen. So therefore, imagine things great things that might happen. Just go into joy,” he said.
Or as Lionel Ketchian, the Happiness Club’s founder said in an April, 2005 New York Times article, “Always tell yourself you are 100 percent happy. If you’re not, it’s your fault. You’ve chosen to be unhappy.”
For more information on Baltimore’s Happiness Club, contact Betty Cherniak at 410-466-1065 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phil Jacobs is the former executive editor of Washington Jewish Week — email@example.com