How to be happy - a Jewish perspective

Note: In a speech called “Happiness,” downloadable for free at, Dr. Rabbi Akiva Tatz talks about the Jewish concept of happiness. What follows are some very brief highlights of that talk, with some commentary.

According to Dr. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, “The correct understanding is that happiness is the experience of the soul to doing what it should be doing….When you’re doing what you should be doing, the response is happiness.”

What this means is that genuine happiness is “a response to a situation of growth and development. When you’re moving along the road to the correct goal, you will be happy. It has nothing to do with whether the road is easy or difficult and it has nothing to do with the expression on your face. On the contrary, when the expression on your face is perhaps the most contorted with pain and effort, some of those experiences are the most happy experiences that could be.”

Conversely, “real sadness is when you don’t know which road you’re supposed to be on. Everybody may be giggling around you, and you may be in the lap of luxury, but if you’re not moving along the road you need to be moving along and time is ticking by, your neshama (soul) will become depressed.”

Tatz goes on to say that “Growth is always made against resistance. When you’re walking along the right road, you relish the journey. Even though the journey may be painful. There’s a happiness there.”

In reality, there is no commandment to be happy. Nevertheless, “when you serve HaShem (G-d) the way you have to serve Him, the result is simcha (happiness)….When you’re walking along the right road to the right destination, your heart will be singing within you.”

Tatz explains the Jewish imploration “Ivdu es HaShem besimcha,” or “serve HaShem in happiness.” What it really means, he says, is “serve, and you’ll be happy.”

The Torah states elsewhere that the Jews would be punished if they “did not serve HaShem in happiness.” What that means, Tatz says, is not that the Jews should have been happy. It means that they should have served G-d in happiness. “They’re being punished for not serving HaShem in happiness. That’s the important word (serving).”

I have a slightly different interpretation. I take the punishment to mean that true service to G-d necessarily makes one happy. If you serve G-d but are unhappy doing so, then your service is not correct and G-d will redirect ("punish") you until you find the right path.

On the other side, Tatz makes another point, about depression (not chemical depression, but functional depression, he clarifies). “Depression is rooted in the feeling of death. What if a person lived through a year in which they did nothing? It’s death. It’s a year of death. How would you feel if you’re walking on a road and you’re going around in circles. You feel the tremendous pain of all the work that’s put in and it didn’t get you anywhere.”

Tatz adds a key point: “Either a person is achieving and happy, or not achieving and depressed. Or they’re achieving something irrelevant – they sublimate. They need to be working and building and dedicated to something….There’s a sublimation of the need to perfect…can be sublimated to something else, something less meaningful. The neshama thinks it’s getting fed.”

This is such an important point. We can approximate the feeling of happiness by pursuing any goal. But genuine happiness is only felt from spiritual pursuits. Not that non-spiritual goals are always irrelevant—far from it. Some of them are actually necessary for life. But the happiness we feel from non-spiritual pursuits should not be mixed up with the kind of genuine contentment we feel from getting closer to G-d. And too often, that is exactly what happens.