September 28, 2011
Opinion: For a Happy New Year, here’s what to do
Jews get to celebrate the new year twice a year — on Rosh Hashanah and on Jan. 1. But there are differences between the two holidays: Rosh Hashanah is used more for introspection, and New Year’s is more a time for celebration and partying.
There are also differences in terms of resolutions. On Rosh Hashanah, we make resolutions about our ethical and moral behavior; on New Year’s, we are more likely to make personal improvement resolutions, such as doing more exercise, watching our diet or watching less TV.
I hereby offer a resolution that is appropriate for both Rosh Hashanah and New Year’s. It affects both the moral and the personal equally — and it affects every person with whom one interacts:
When you think about it, it is remarkable that almost no one makes this resolution. Just about everyone wants to be happy, but no one resolves to be happy. And why not? After all, people resolve to be healthier, to waste less time, to manage their money better, etc.
The reason they don’t is that, unlike almost anything else in life, people don’t think they have any control over how happy they are. We believe that, at least to some extent, we can control our health and our finances, but not our happiness.
Despite our awareness of how much of our health and finances are not in our hands, we make resolutions to improve both areas of life.
It shows how little we think we can control our happiness that we make health and financial resolutions but don’t consider making resolutions to be happier.
Yet, the truth is that most of us can control our happiness more than we can control our health or finances. It is easier to become happier than, for example, to become thinner, to cite the most common New Year’s resolution.
You can’t act thinner to be thinner. And you can’t act richer to be richer. But in order to be happier, the single most important thing you can do is also the easiest — just act it.
Now, you will ask, if it’s that easy, why doesn’t everybody do it?
Three reasons suggest themselves. One is that people think happiness is a feeling, and you can’t control feelings. A second is that people believe that happiness happens to them, so it cannot be pursued or created. And the third is that many people believe that acting happy when one doesn’t feel happy is “inauthentic” and therefore dishonest.
All three suppositions are wrong.
First, happiness is not only a feeling. Happiness is much more a state of mind or an attitude. In fact, the less one defines it as a feeling, the happier one can be.
Second, happiness is a decision rather than something that happens to us. As Abraham Lincoln, who was devastated when his beloved son Willie died at the age of 11, and whose wife sank into permanent depression as a result, and whose countrymen slaughtered each other in a civil war, said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Third, the idea that we should not act in a certain way unless we feel like doing so would ruin our lives if applied elsewhere. If we went to work only when we felt like doing so, we would lose every job we ever held. If we took care of our crying and sick children only when we felt like doing so, they would be removed from our homes. If we ate only what we wanted to eat and in the quantities we wanted, we would be obese. If we gave charity only when we felt like it, much less charity would be given.
Success in every arena involves not acting on our feelings. There is no reason to make an exception with regard to happiness.
Not only will you become happier, everyone around you will become happier.
That is why acting happy is a moral obligation. We owe it to everyone in our lives — our spouses, our children, our friends, our co-workers — to act happy. Acting unhappy on a regular basis is an act of selfishness that can devastate one’s children, ruin a marriage and end friendships.
Are some people incapable of being happy? Probably. But just about everyone is capable of at least acting happier.
If you are unhappy, you should know this secret about life: The vast majority of people you meet who seem happy have had at least as much pain in their lives as you have had in yours. They have simply decided to not inflict their pain on others.
For a powerful five-minute summation of why to act happy even if you don’t feel like it, please visit prageru.com, click on “Psychology” and then on the course titled “Happiness Is a Moral Obligation.”
And have a happy New Year.