Rabbi Evan Moffic reflects on 'The Happiness Prayer'

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There came a point when even the usually optimistic Rabbi Evan Moffic, of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, needed some help being happy. He turned to a prayer he had been saying for years, the Eilu Devarim . He realized everything he needed was in it. 

He shares his thoughts in "The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today" (Center Street, Hachette Book Group).

JUF News: What is the happiness prayer? 

Rabbi Evan Moffic: It's a prayer taken from the Talmud about 10 practices that lead to a sense of meaning and purpose. They are: Honor Those Who Gave You Life, Be Kind, Keep Learning, Invite Others into Your Life, Be There When Others Need You, Celebrate Good Times, Support Yourself and Others during Times of Loss, Pray with Intention, Forgive, and Look Inside and Commit.  

You mentioned meaning and purpose. How does happiness fit in?

Happiness is more than pleasure, it's about satisfaction with life and meaning and purpose lead to it. The English word happiness comes from the Latin root, hap, as in happenstance. It means something random, like winning the lottery. The Hebrew word for happiness is simcha . It is a happiness that demands intention. Happiness is a choice available to all of us.

Why did you become interested in attaining happiness?

 I'd always been a pretty happy guy. I had a lot of early success, but I also felt a lot of pressure. I wasn't able to do as great a job as I wanted. That led me to the school of positive psychology. As I studied it, I realized-this is kind of life I want to have, with meaning in my work and with my family. 

Then one day I was at a bat mitzvah service and as the girl chanted the Eilu Devarim, I realized why it has been a central part of Jewish tradition for 2,000 years. It brings our attention to the struggles, actions, and experiences that ultimately bring joy and meaning to our lives. I began referring to it as the happiness prayer.

There are many shelves in the bookstore about how to be happy. How is your book different?

I bring the Jewish aspect to it. A lot of the happiness books are written from a psychological perspective or from a Christian perspective. But nothing has been written with a Jewish voice. I think that faith and religion generally have enormous impact on being happy. Studies show people connected to a religious community live, on average, seven years longer. Positive psychology focuses on ideas such as gratitude and community. Judaism takes those ideas and gives them tangible expression. Judaism focuses on deeds more than beliefs.

Aren't some of us just wired to be happy?

Yes, psychologists have discovered that 40-50 percent of happiness comes from genetics. But that leaves 50-60 percent in our control.

You also talk about what happiness is not.

All the possessions we have and the pleasures we pursue are ultimately distractions from what brings us the greatest joy-the relationships we nurture. I've learned that true happiness does not come from ease. It does not come from getting whatever we want whenever we want. Possessions may give us a temporary boost, but happiness comes from doing things that make a difference. It comes from knowing we are here for a reason. 

We're all familiar with the concept of schadenfreude-basically enjoying someone else's misfortune. But you talk about the flip side of that- naches .

Naches (pride) is about finding joy in another person's success. It's a sign of a happy person. When we celebrate with the bride and groom, some of their joy rubs off on us. I always suspected this was true, but now new findings in the field of neuroscience proves it. Scientists have discovered what they call "mirror neurons." These are parts of the brain that lead us to mirror the emotions of the people around us. When they feel joy, so do we.

Why are the High Holidays a good time to talk about happiness?

There's an openness during the High Holidays. Jews are open to hearing a spiritual perspective; souls are open to change and growth. The message arrives when a person is ready to receive it and people are more receptive during the holidays. 

Cheryl Lavin is a Chicago journalist. Her column, Tales from the Front , is on the Sun-Times website.


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