Synthesizing Happiness

062113_Etan_MintzDr. Daniel Gilbert, an eminent professor of psychology at Harvard University, describes a fascinating study demonstrating that one year after individuals either win the lottery or become paraplegic, their levels of happiness were the same as before those events occurred.

This is a truly astounding finding, which insinuates that even events that seem to be objectively good or bad do not appear to change one’s level of long-term happiness —Gilbert concluded that it is not our external circumstances that determine our happiness, but our ability to do what he terms, “synthesizing happiness,” or creating happiness based on our responses to the events that we experience.

I can recall a time in my life when I was undergoing a particularly difficult situation, which at the time, felt like a curse of sorts. Three months later, while externally the situation remained unchanged, I was thanking and praising God for being afforded such an opportunity.

Each year, as I read the enigmatic story of Bilaam blessing the Jewish people despite having been commissioned to curse them, something we read in this week’s Torah portion, I am reminded of this teaching of “synthetic happiness.” On one level, this is a story of the power of God and the Jewish people that even a sorcerer commissioned by an enemy of the Israelites is forced to alter his words and impelled to praise them. But perhaps there is an even more subtle and deeper message, one of the fine line in life between blessing and curse and the power of the lens through which we gaze at life.

Bilaam set out to curse but ended up blessing. But maybe his words did not even change, rather his perspective did. Looking at the glorious tents of Jacob, his words of curse were naturally colored and shaped into words of blessings.

Rav Israel Ba’al Shem, in explaining the famous words of Psalms, which often adorn an ark in a synagogue sanctuary: To always place God before us, “Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid” (16:8), teaches that life’s occurrences should all be equal — “shaveh” from the word shiviti.

Whether we are being served delicacies or simple food, honored or disgraced, blessed or cursed, it should all be equal in our eyes as it all originates from the same source. This form of acceptance, or equanimity, brings a sense of wholeness, or, in the words of Dr. Gilbert, “synthetic happiness.” That is not to say that there are not life events that are inherently tragic and unthinkable. And I am not here to answer Job’s age-old question of why good people suffer. But with
95 percent of life’s occurrences, it is our interpretation of the event, and not the event itself, that shapes our experience.

Rabbi Etan Mintz is spiritual leader at B’nai Israel Congregation.

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