David: Wanna hear a joke backwards?

Diego: OK. Go ahead.

David: Start laughing . . .

This may sound like a silly joke, but as we will see, it contains a valuable lesson.

Happiness is one of the most sought-after and elusive goals. Everyone wants to have it, but not everyone knows how to find it easily.

Why is it so difficult to find?

Perhaps because we look for it in the wrong place . . .

Happiness is one of the most sought-after and elusive goalsBeing in the month of Adar, it is an opportune time to analyze the topic of happiness, as our sages taught us: Mishenichnas Adar marbin besimchah, “When the month of Adar enters, we increase joy.”1 This is especially so this year, being a Jewish leap year that contains two months of Adar, or sixty days of joy.

We find an explicit command in the Bible2 to be happy during the festivals.

King David in his Psalms3 says: Ivdu et Hashem besimchah, “Serve G‑d with joy.”

Maimonides4 points out that happiness is a fundamental element of our service of G‑d, and its lack is a great fault.

According to the Baal Shem Tov, there is nothing that causes as much spiritual damage as the lack of joy, because depression opens the doors to all types of decadence.

Now, how can we order someone to be happy? How can one even choose to implement the order if he is not naturally happy?

According to Chassidic teachings, happiness is the natural state of being. A healthy baby is naturally healthy. The natural state of the human being is to be happy. As one grows and matures, one’s perception of reality can sabotage that natural state. Happiness and the lack of it, therefore, are not so much results of reality as of our perception of it. When one reconfigures the negative perception, the natural state of happiness will flow once again.

Let’s look at an example.

In order to define “failure,” one must first determine the parameters of “success”One of the main causes for sadness is the feeling of failure. How do we overcome the sadness it provokes?

In order to define “failure,” one must first determine the parameters of “success.” If one decides to run a 40-kilometer marathon, for example, and finishes in last place, is that considered to be a success or a failure? Well, it obviously depends on what his goal was—to win it or to complete it.

Sometimes the feeling of failure is simply the result of one’s arrogance. One considers oneself to be more capable than he really is, and according to that, establishes goals that go far beyond his real capacity. Instead of feeling accomplished by what he was able to do, he feels like a failure because of what he wasn’t able to.

The Mishnaic sage, Ben Zoma, expresses it very succinctly: Eizehu ashir? Hasame’ach bechelko. “Who is rich? He who is happy with his share.”5 This saying seems to be counterintuitive; one would think the opposite to be true, that riches causes happiness rather than happiness being the cause for wealth. Here we have a profound lesson for life. Wealth is not the product of the situation in your bank account; it is the result of the situation in your mind.

How does one achieve such an “enriching” attitude? Isn’t it a tad conformist to be satisfied with whatever one has? How does this jibe with the natural ambition one has and should have, and the drive to surpass one’s accomplishments? Is it even beneficial for a person to conform to his reality and not try to improve his situation?

Here we arrive at the crux of the issue. Being happy does not necessarily mean being satisfied, and being unsatisfied is not necessarily synonymous with being unhappy. You can be both happy and unsatisfied at the same time and because of the same situation.

We can understand why this is so by analyzing the story the Torah tells us about the encounter between Jacob and Esau.6 Some thirty years after Jacob had to flee his brother Esau’s anger as a result of his having received the blessings from their father, Isaac, the moment to return home arrived. When Jacob found out that his brother was on his way to meet him with 400 men of war, he prepared himself in various ways, one of which was a lavish gift consisting of servants, cattle and beasts of burden, in order to placate him. When they finally meet and embrace, Esau asks his brother: what is the purpose of all that you sent? To which Jacob replies that it was “a gift sent in order to find favor in your eyes.” Esau replies: “I have much, my brother; let that which is yours be yours.” Jacob replies: “Please accept my gift that was brought to you, for G‑d has graced me and I have everything . . .”7

Which of the two was wealthier, Esau who proclaimed that he had “much” or Jacob who claimed to have “everything”?

Real wealth depends on attitudeWe don’t really know who had more zeros in his bank account—and that is not even the issue, because real wealth depends on attitude. Esau said that he had “much,” because he wanted even more; he did not feel that he had all that he desired. Jacob, on the other hand, said that he had “everything,” because he understood that he had everything that he needed.

Why did they have such different perspectives?

Esau attributed his wealth to his personal efforts, and evaluated its worth based on his personal needs and desires. Jacob, on the other hand, understood that everything that he had was not just for his own personal pleasure but in order to fulfil his G‑d-given life mission. Everything that he had was not just the result of his efforts, but because G‑d had planned it so. If what he has is from G‑d, that means that he has absolutely everything necessary, because were he to need anything else in order to fulfill his mission, G‑d would have provided him with it. “I have everything,” he said.

We can now have a better understanding of what Ben Zoma says about the fact that a rich man is one who is happy with what he has: not just satisfied, but happy. Knowing that what one has comes from G‑d and is given to him in order to fulfill the purpose he was created for, makes one happy. He is really rich, because he not only has much; he has absolutely everything he needs at that given moment. This is in stark contrast to one who works primarily in order to accomplish personal goals based on personal interests, and is therefore never really satisfied.

There are other negative perceptions that one can have that will provoke sadness. By identifying, understanding and reconfiguring them, one can restore his happiness. These different attitudes are analyzed extensively in the Tanya (chapters 26–33).

Oh, what is the lesson we learn from the backward joke at the beginning of this article? That one of the most efficient ways to attain personal happiness is by acting happy. Laugh, and happiness will follow suit.