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Fixing Unhappiness

Sermon Parshat Tzav 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

You probably didn’t know it, but March 20th, 2019, Wednesday of this past week, was International Happiness Day. It turns out that it coincided with Purim this year—now that’s a nice combination! Who even knew there was an International Happiness Day? But if there is one, it should fall on Purim every year. Anyway, in honor of International Happiness Day the results of the most recent study on happiness in America were released and they were disappointing, if not entirely surprising. This happiness survey determined that Americans are now officially as unhappy as we have ever been. That is, during a time of economic expansion with very low unemployment and also very low inflation, more Americans now classify themselves as unhappy than ever before.

In 2019 we, as a society, are unhappier than we were during the Great Depression or after Pearl Harbor or during the Vietnam War or Watergate or after 9/11 or during the subprime mortgage Great Recession.

And that doesn’t really make sense, does it? Things have often been much worse by measurable standards than they are now, but we are, right now, collectively, really not happy. In spite of Purim and Spring Fling and Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day, in spite of the weather being glorious and the wildflowers plentiful, with all the springtime reasons to be glad, in spite of near-full employment and not being at war with anyone—at least not obviously so—and living in a time of incredible technological achievement and relative wealth, we apparently aren’t enjoying life much at all.

If decades should have nicknames, like the Gay Nineties or the Roaring Twenties or the Swinging 60s or the Me Decade, then this could be the Traumatic Teens or the Depressed Decade.

What’s gone so wrong? Why don’t we seem to be enjoying our lives as much as we used to, or should?

There are a few reasons for this. The first is perhaps the most obvious: we are constantly being told that we should be outraged and angry about what’s going on in the world. We hear this nonstop from some media outlets and from certain prominent politicians. Everyone is out to get us, we are told: the left—if you are on the right—or the right—if you are on the left—is totally corrupt and evil and filled with terrible ideas and schemes to destroy everything you hold dear. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, as the old cliché would have it, and dang it, we have to do something about it right now! Like be furious.

Even formerly sane publications and websites have adopted this yellow journalism standard, because everyone imitates everyone else in this world, and nothing gets more attention in our society than hostile screaming.

There are good reasons to object to many things that are happening in our national scene at any time, of course. But the way these topics—some serious and complex and even dangerous, others merely distractions—are handled, as though they required maximum fury and outrage to even discuss them, does not help. And it contributes to the unhappiness in our society.

For most of us, this flood of augmented anger creates a sense of general unease and discomfort, even distress, emotions that certainly can prevent happiness. Even though most sane individuals discount the more sensationalist and extreme claims and attitudes, there is a kind of cumulative effect, a deleterious impact on our state of mind. And all that free-floating anger leads to a steady erosion of trust in everything, and in almost all of our national institutions.

Of course, for those people who are not well moored, whose relationships with others are limited or damaged, these kinds of radical provocations are actually believed. And they fester, and tragically they are sometimes acted upon. Most of the time they just show up as hostile posts online, or random acts of anti-Muslim or Anti-Semitic or racist behavior: vandalism, or shouted epithets or the like.

But sometimes all that amplified hostility, all those spores of projected hatred, reach someone on the margins of society in whom they take root. And then you get a massacre like Christchurch, or the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, or the Baptist Church in Texas or the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The second area that causes serious challenges to our happiness is the increasing alienation many of us have from other people engendered by our devotion to our technology. Some of that is caused by our addiction to our communications devices, the tremendous amount of time we spend engaged with our screens: phones, tablets, laptops and computers, even smart watches. You cannot fully function in this world without accessing internet devices to some degree, and the latest studies show that people who don’t use smartphones at all are actually not happy. But those same studies show that people who use them the most are also quite unhappy. The happiest people are those who use their devices no more than an hour or so a day. Fascinating: when we think we are connecting to other people through social media we are actually diminishing our sense of truly connecting.

I’ll never forget one Valentine’s Day evening I spent in a restaurant; everyone around our table on this theoretically romantic night was eating dinner with their dates while engaged in texting, posting on Instagram feeds and Facebook with other people. It was startling, and made me wonder just what joy could come from that experience, and how those relationships were being deepened, if at all.

The third piece to this happiness problem is one of dedication. That is, our society has moved away from commitment to community organizations and affiliations, and we have become increasingly isolated. Almost twenty years ago Robert Putnam, a great sociologist of America—and a Conservative Jew and past guest of mine on the Too Jewish Radio Show—wrote a book called Bowling Alone. It documented an America in which people increasingly did not join organizations and often participated in activities solo, no longer connected to the traditional religious and social entities that once bounded and enriched their lives. Typical, regular experiences like praying together, making music together, working together to better society, even doing sports together were fading. We were, well, bowling alone.

I’m not sure that I have the solution to this happiness crisis, except to say that the things that truly make us happy—family, friends, synagogue, festivals, springtime weather—are the things we need to work to build up and enhance and celebrate. And the things that make us angry or hostile or unhinged we need, wherever possible, to avoid. Our lives are better when we live and work together for the good of all, not when we act out our ugliest impulses and most hostile tendencies. And not when we isolate ourselves from others.

I can’t promise a happier society will prevent future violence against innocents or fix this complicated world. But I do firmly believe that it’s time we chose a different course than the one that has been making us miserable for a while now. And that course is one of mutual support, commitment and joy, of communal connection and commitment.

The whole Book of Leviticus, and our Torah portion of Tzav, focuses on the way our ancestors worshipped God through animal sacrifices, korbanot. For the past 1900 years, since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, prayer and study, and acts of charity and repentance, have replaced sacrifice, communal acts to better ourselves, and our world. These are all ways we open ourselves to God and diminish our emphasis on the self.

Sacrifice in the Torah was a way to accept not that smaller lives could be given over for the sake of our more important lives. Instead, it was a method to connect us to the fact that our own existence is holy only when we offer ourselves to God in community. By giving up something—a bit of our self-importance, our isolation, our anger, our technological addiction—we can give our lives meaning and sanctity.

And if we do so here, in our own synagogue, we have the chance to do so in our larger society. And then perhaps next year International Happiness Day can be celebrated as a time of increasing joy and goodness.

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