The Glass Ceiling of Happiness

I was recently at a lab for a routine blood test on a Monday morning at 7:45am. The phlebotomist, named Charmaine, was humming to herself. “You’re in a good mood this morning,” I said. “Yes, I’m pretty much always in a good mood. And if I’m not, I get in a good mood. Especially at work. I don’t like to be in a bad mood at work. Music is my thing.” I reflected on this woman’s experience for a long time. I like to think of myself as a person who focuses on the positive and tries to be optimistic, but this woman far surpasses me in her effortless cheerfulness. For her, it’s not something she has to work at. I wonder how many people are like her--people whose brains probably have an abundance of serotonin being released at just the right times (like Monday morning, for instance), people who have dopamine flowing between those neurotransmitters. Then there are those on the other end of the spectrum with depression, whose brains are simply not making enough of those feel good chemicals. It’s a bell curve; everyone else falls in the middle.

Being in a good mood, or at least “faking it until you make it,” seems to be essential in achieving successful relationships. Whether it is at work or at home, no one wants to be around someone moping or complaining. And to a certain degree, our attitude, especially our collective attitude, affects the outcome of our projects at work, our family vacations, and even just spending a few hours on our own doing household chores.. Furthermore, it’s a mitzvah to greet other people cheerfully; whether we feel cheerful or not: "Greet everybody with a warm, cheerful, and pleasant countenance." (Pirkei Avot 1:15).

My newish position at Jewish Federation takes me on journeys throughout Greater Philadelphia. I am blessed that I enjoy my work, which involves seeing the inside of many synagogues, and having coffee with many rabbis. Sometimes these journeys keep me on the road for hours a day, and I quickly realized that I needed to use that time wisely. So when one of our area Orthodox rabbis suggested a series of podcasts called “The Shmuz,” by Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier, I eagerly downloaded the app. While I had been hoping for “more Torah,” and “less shmuz,” I came to enjoy my travels with Rabbi Shafier, even when I disagreed with him.

A number of Rabbi Shafier’s talks focus on what I think of as “cognitive therapy” techniques-- essentially controlling our thoughts to affect how we feel. Indeed, the tagline of The Shmuz is “Because the way you think, becomes the way you feel, becomes who you are!” Rabbi Shafier teaches about having gratitude and finding meaning in life-- things I have heard before but things that are useful and worth repeating to a rabbi who finds herself driving for hours a day otherwise victim of the wandering, worrying, mind.

When I got tired of The Shmuz I asked one of our local Chabad rabbis for a suggestion. The “Jewish TV” app he suggested is simply overwhelming with thousands of lectures by different teachers. After being disappointed with my first choice--a lecture on the parasha, I begrudgingly settled for trying “classes for women.” Again the theme in many of these lectures was about how to achieve happiness through a spiritual process. And actually, the rabbi that suggested the app to me is offering a seminar which promises to teach “the 5 most important steps on the road to happiness.”

All of this has me thinking about how the fact that there are so many classes and books offering paths to happiness underscores just how elusive it is. I have often thought about whether happiness is even really what our “goal” in life should be. After all, Jewish texts don’t teach about a “mitzvah” to be happy, except perhaps on the chagim, especially Sukkot. We do, however, read a lot in our tradition about the importance of being “good” for lack of a better word. We have many mitzvot that govern our behavior both with others and with Gd. Many people say that their greatest hope for their children is that “they are happy.” And of course I wish my children happiness. But it’s an awful lot of pressure for something so elusive to so many. On the other hand, “goodness” seems a more achievable, and perhaps, a more Jewish, goal.

Some people seem naturally cheerful and blessed with an effortlessly good mood. Others have to work at being “happy” but never reach that same “mostly happy most of the time” status. I have recently started to wonder if the “less happy people” might not be seeing the “more happy” people through a glass ceiling. In other words--happiness might be a temperament that can be achieved in varying degrees based on our genetics and our life circumstances, but goodness is something we can all achieve. Either way, it’s my firm belief that it takes all types of people to do Gd’s work here on earth. All different personalities are needed, and each individual has a gift to offer or a task to complete in their lifetime which no one else can fulfil. A teaching from Reb Zushe of Annipoli, articulates this concept beautifully:
Our Sages have said, "Just as their faces are different, so too are their thoughts different." There exist on earth millions of people, and they all have the same basic features on their faces: two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Nonetheless, no two people look alike. Similarly, if the outward appearances of people are so diverse, then how great must be the differences in their inner workings, the qualities of their souls, and their natures. If the beauty of the soul in all humans was identical, then why would God need to create so many millions of people, where each one is no different from the next?
However, the secret is this: Each person is sent down to this world in order to fulfill a specific Divine task, to carry out on earth a lofty, heavenly purpose. This is the mission of human beings on earth; moreover, for as many people as God sends down to earth, He has just as many different tasks and purposes. The work of one person is totally independent of the task of any other person, and each one must carry through and complete his given purpose. 
Therefore, God endows each person with unique talents and attributes necessary for him to fulfill his task. These talents cry out within each person, demanding to be expressed and to fulfill the mission for which they were sent to this world. (Hamodia, 10 Cheshvan 5759)
If certain levels of happiness truly are a glass ceiling for some percentage of the population, then this means that the kind of happiness Charmaine describes isn't necessary for each of us to do our job on this earth. I wonder if Charmaine’s happiness is integral to her work as a phlebotomist, or if Gd made her so happy for another task on this earth--her role in her family, for example. Through discernment, I truly believe that each of us can find that work that most fits our effortless talents.