Is Happiness the Meaning of Life?

Before we can really engage with Jewish ethical issues, we need to tackle the most fundamental question of all. What is this thing called life all about? What do we live for and what are the supreme values which shape the goals we strive for and the standards by which we live? In the course of our discussion we critically assess a common answer to that question – that happiness is the meaning of life.

Is Happiness the Goal?

  1. Darren McMahon, The Pursuit of Happiness in Perspective
Today, when not only Protestants, but Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims regularly offer their faiths in America as effective means to earthly happiness, it is more difficult still to discern religion’s main object. In a sense, they too serve the greatest of the modern gods, the most ultimate of ultimate ends: the god of good feeling, who now reigns here below.

Jewish Perspectives on Purpose, Meaning and Motivation

  1. Genesis 2:7
And Hashem God formed the man from the dust of the earth and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life and the man became a living being.
  1. Bava Kama 87a
Rabbi Yehuda exempted blind people from all the mitzvot in the Torah…Rav Yosef said: ‘Initially, I would have said that, if one said that the halacha is like Rabbi Yehuda such that blind people are exempt from mitzvot, I would throw a party for the rabbis. The reason is that I am not commanded to do the mitzvot but, nevertheless, I do them.

But now that I have heard that Rabbi Chanina said that the one who is commanded and does the mitzvah is greater than the one who is not commanded and does the mitzvah, if someone tells me that the halacha is not like Rabbi Yehuda, I will throw a party for the rabbis. The reason is that, since I am commanded, I will get more reward.

  1. Sanhedrin 99b
Whoever commits adultery with a woman lacks understanding. Resh Lakish said: This alludes to one who studies the Torah at [irregular] intervals
  1. Victor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul
I remember my dilemma in a concentration camp when faced with a man and a woman who were close to suicide; both had told me that they expected nothing more from life. I asked both my fellow prisoners whether the question was really what we expected from life. Was it not, rather, what life was expecting from us? I suggested that life was awaiting something from them. In fact the woman was being awaited by her child abroad, and the man had a series of books which he had begun to write and publish but had not yet finished.
  1. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On the Love of Torah and the Redemption of the Soul of the Generation
Even though I have lived in America for many years, I have still not adopted the pragmatic view of religion. In my view, faith does not come to serve human needs, and the technological-utilitarian desire, which has its place in the scientific consciousness, is characteristic of the transcendental yearning of man. I have never tried to explain Torat Israel in categories of mental health, spiritual tranquillity and the like, even though this approach is very common here among Jewish thinkers, both Haredi and non-Haredi alike.

The Relationship Between Happiness and the Meaning of Life

  1. Martin Seligman
To the extent that young people now find it hard to take seriously their relationship with God…or to be part of a large and abiding family, they will find it very difficult to find meaning in life. To put it another way, the self is a very poor site for finding meaning.
  1. Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
[M]an is responsible and must actualise the potential meaning of his life… The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or a person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualises himself. What is called self-actualisation is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualisation is only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence.
  1. Victor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul
For as soon as we lend our minds to the essence of human responsibility, we cannot forbear to shudder; there is something fearful about man’s responsibility. But at the same time something glorious! It is fearful to know that at this moment we bear the responsibility for the next, that every deision from the smallest to the largest is a decision for all eternity, that at every moment we bring to reality – or miss – a possibility that exists only for the particular moment.
  1. Rabbi Avraham Elya Kaplan
Yir’ah is not anguish, not pain, not bitter anxiety. To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance… It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son’s every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways – his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the “bundle” of his life’s meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it fora moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir’ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it – then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices…

Simcha As Shared Joy

  1. Deuteronomy 24:5
When a man marries a new wife, he shall not go out to the army, nor shall it obligate him for any matter; he shall be free for his home for one year, and he shall gladden (ve-simach) his wife whom he has married.
  1. Deuteronomy 12:7
You shall eat there before Hashem your God and you shall rejoice (u-samachtem) with your every undertaking, you and your households, as Hashem, your God, has blessed you.
  1. Deuteronomy 16:11
You shall rejoice before Hashem your God – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite who is in your cities, the proselyte, the orphan and the widow who are among you– in the place that Hashem, your God, will choose to rest his name.

Does This Make a Difference to the Ethical Life?

  1. Zygmunt Bauman, The Absence of Society,
This is not to say that we have turned entirely deaf to the misfortunes of other people, or with the sorry state of our planet. Nor have we stopped declaring our willingness to act in defence of the downtrodden. Superficially, the opposite might seem to be the case. Paradoxically, the spectacular rise of egotistic self-concern runs shoulder to shoulder with rising sensitivity to human misery and abhorrence of pain and suffering visited on even most distant strangers. But, as Lipovetsky observed, such moral impulses and outbursts of magnanimity are instances of ‘painless morality’ stripped of obligations. When it comes to acting for the sake of others, the well-being of self seems to be both the preliminary and the ultimate consideration. It tends to set the limits to which we areprepared to go in our readiness to help…We don’t seem to feel any longer that we have a mission to perform on the planet.
  1. David Wolpe, Time Magazine
Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations; as Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a column in the New York Times two years ago: the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization is not Save the Children or Care, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian group. To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good.