THE BLOG
09/17/2012 03:46 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2012

Shanah Tovah: It's Not About Being Happy -- It's About Doing Good

There are two Hebrew words that we say many, many times over these High Holy Days. They express a wonderful sentiment to use when we greet others -- whether in the sanctuary, in the parking lot or with friends and family -- because they reflect our hopes for this New Year.

Those two Hebrew words are, of course, shanah tovah. And yet we almost always mistranslate them.

Perhaps it's because we Jews celebrate two "new years" -- Rosh Hashanah and Jan. 1 -- that the English greeting we tend to use is "happy new year." But that's not what shanah tovah means. "Shanah tovah" has almost nothing to do with happiness. Instead, "Shanah tovah" really means "a good year," and there is a difference between our year being a "happy" one and our year being a "good" one. And I would argue that we shouldn't focusing on "being happy." Instead, we should focus on "doing good."

Now, I can already hear an objection: Don't we want to be happy? Is there anyone here who would wish for less happiness this year? Well, of course, if we had the choice, we would obviously rather be happy than be sad. But it also depends on what we mean by the word "happy." Generally, we define "happiness" as "a pleasurable feeling," but here's the thing -- feelings come and feelings go. So yes, we all hope that this year will have many moments of pleasure. But we also know that this year will bring moments of sadness. Of anxiety. Of struggles. In fact, there is even significant research that shows that we have only a limited amount of control over how happy we actually are.

Sonya Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology and author of the book The How of Happiness, tells us that there are three main factors that determine our happiness level. The first part is genetic -- our "happiness set point," as it's called. Just as some people's genes make them taller or shorter than others, genetics play a role in our psychological make-up, as well, which naturally influence what our "baseline happiness" tends to be. According to the research, our genetic tendencies make up about half of our happiness level - and so half of our happiness is something we have no absolutely control over.

The second part of the happiness equation is life circumstances -- are we partnered or single? How much money do we have? Are we healthy or ill? These are the areas where we tend to invest a lot of our time, energy, and resources. We try to put money into savings. We go to the gym. We try to eat better. Yet even a cursory reflection on last year shows us just how much luck is involved in our attempts to change our circumstances. We may have tried to save money - but found that landing a job was surprisingly difficult. We may have gone to the gym and eaten better - but were sideswiped by an illness we never saw coming. We can do our best to try to improve our circumstances, but we know that in this area, as well, we have only limited influence.

But what's surprising is that it turns out that life circumstances make up about only 10 percent of our happiness level. While there is always an initial shock when our circumstances change dramatically -- both for good and for ill -- within a few months, their power generally lessens. Why is that? Because we humans have what's called "hedonic adaptation," which is just a fancy way of saying "whatever it is, we tend to get used to it."

Author and behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains it well:

If you've ever gone to a matinee and walked from the dark movie theater to the sunny parking lot, the first moment outside is one of stunning brightness, but then your eyes adjust relatively quickly...

[Similarly, w]hen we move into a new house, we may be delighted with the gleaming hardwood floors or upset about the garish lime green kitchen cabinets. After a few weeks, those factors fade into the background. A few months later we aren't as annoyed by the color of the cabinets, but at the same time, we don't derive as much pleasure from the hardwood floors.

Just as our eyes adjust to changes in light and environment, we can adapt to changes in expectation and experience. (Ariely, The Upside of Irrationality, 158-159, 168-169)

So while we may try to change our circumstances in 5773 in order to "be happy," we have to remember that not only do have only a finite amount of control, and not only would we need to invest significant time and effort in changing them, even if we do succeed, they will only minimally affect our level of happiness.

So if 50% is genetics and 10% is life circumstances, what's the other 40 percent? It turns out that the remaining 40% of our happiness consists of simple actions that we choose to do. What are those actions? They're ones you would probably expect to hear: Express gratitude. Practice acts of kindness. Be fully present in your actions and with those around you.

And what's interesting is that through these behaviors, we re-orient how we perceive this year. While these actions do make up 40% of what makes us happy -- what make us "feel good" -- they are almost 100 percent of what it means for us to "do good." Expressing gratitude, practicing acts of kindness, being fully present -- these types of actions make both us and our world a little bit better. So as we look towards 5773, we shouldn't be asking the question, "Will it be a happy new year?" Research suggests that a large part of that equation is outside of our direct control. So instead, we should be asking, "How will we do good this year?"

Now, if this sounds a little bit like "moral self-help" -- it kind of is. And that may not such a bad thing. Earlier this week, Megan McArdle, a journalist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, wrote a piece entitled "What's Wrong With Self-Help Books?" She notes that people often denigrate them, because

[t]he lessons they offer are obvious -- be nice to your spouse, save more, give constructive feedback to your team members, eat less and exercise more. And of course this is true, not through any particular fault of the authors, but because there are very few revolutions in human affairs. The basic facts of living, getting along with others, and dying haven't actually changed all that much since they were first discussed in blockbuster self-help titles like The Bible.

But that doesn't mean they don't bear repeating...[And s]ome messages can only be heard when [we] are ready. (McArdle, "What's Wrong with Self-Help Books?" The Daily Beast, 9/13/12)

Similarly, the messages of the High Holy Days are ones we hear all the time: reflect on our actions from this past year. Be kind to others. Be kind to ourselves. Make restitution for the mistakes we made. Forgive. These are messages we hear each year because these are messages that bear repeating.

But perhaps even more important than the words we speak is the way that Rosh Hashanah forces us to do what's called cheshbon hanefesh -- an accounting of our soul. A joke among many people who work in the Jewish world is the hope that the holidays will be postponed or even cancelled because "we're just not quite ready for them." But that's the point -- whether we are ready for them or not, the purpose of the High Holy Days is to put ourselves in a particular mindset. They are designed to confront us with the question, "What are the messages that we truly need to hear, and are finally ready to heed?"

And centuries of Jewish wisdom have accumulated many messages about how we do good. Indeed, Judaism's vision of "self-help" isn't about "helping ourselves" -- it's about how we help others and make this world better. As Dr. Byron Sherwin and Dr. Seymour Cohen explain in their book Creating an Ethical Jewish Life:

Rather than demonstrating how to accumulate wealth for [ourselves], Jewish ethical literature deals with how wealth may be employed for the benefit of others. Rather than offering strategies about how to manipulate others to do [our] will, it focuses on how best to live a life correlative with the divine will. Rather than teaching [us] how to deliver a speech, it is preoccupied with how to speak without harming others... (Sherwin and Cohen, xi)

So we don't judge this year on how we felt. We don't judge it on whether we were "happy" or not. Instead, as our machzor tells us, "the Shofar's sound [should] awaken the voice of conscience..." (Gates of Repentance, 64-65) We should judge this year on the "good" we can do; how we can build, maintain, and repair our relationships - to ourselves, to each other and to God.

If we can do that, if we focus on "doing good," then we can also rethink what "being happy" might actually look like. While one definition of "happiness" is feeling good, Russ Harris, author of the book The Happiness Trap, reminds us that true, deep, lasting happiness isn't about the fleeting moments of pleasure. As he says,

[w]hen we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy, clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality. This is not some fleeting feeling - it is a profound sense of a life well lived. (Harris, 5)

In the end, that's what these High Holy Days are about. We are not looking for a happy new year, but a good new year -- and that means "a year of goodness." We need to concentrate our attention and actions on what "we consider valuable and worthy" and lead us to "clarify what we stand for in life, and act accordingly." And because it is natural and easy for us to go through the days and months of the year without reflecting on our actions, Rosh Hashanah forces us to consider the kind of life we are building, and to ask ourselves not how we can "be happy," but how we can "do good."

Adonai Eloheinu v'elohei avoteinu v'imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, as we reflect on this past year and look towards the new one, remind us to be grateful for the joyous moments and simple pleasures we experience. Remind us of the kind of life we should be living, so that it is a life of compassion and of justice. And remind us that we should evaluate this year in terms not on how happy we felt, but on how we helped improve ourselves and our world. As our machzor says, "We look ahead with hope, giving thanks for the daily miracle of renewal. For the promise of good to come." (Gates of Repentance, 52) May the promise of 5773 be that we bring a little more goodness into our selves, to others and our world.

Amen, and shanah tovah - may it be a good year for all of us.