Every so often the plates of society shift so fiercely that a volcanic transformation takes place. Take, for example, the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The changes to agriculture and manufacturing were so profound that eventually every aspect of life was influenced in some way. Around the same time another great revolution was unfolding: the 18th-century “Chassidic Revolution.” The very fabric of Jewish society was forever altered by its powerful impression.

A culture of emotional comatoseness and lethargy plagued Jewish livingOne man is responsible for this revolution: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760). He was supported by a group of fellow clandestine Kabbalists who carried down a tradition from the great Kabbalist, the Arizal. The group urged the Baal Shem Tov to go public as a global mentor.

Unlike other revolutions, the Chassidic Revolution did not introduce new beliefs. It only re-emphasized some basic tenets of Jewish faith and philosophy that had taken a back burner due to extreme suffering and anti-Semitism. A culture of emotional comatoseness and lethargy plagued Jewish living, until the Baal Shem Tov inspired a mass “re-Jew-venation.”

Of the basic tenets that he reintroduced, the most well known, perhaps, is the emphasis on joy. Later, one of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples expressed his master’s sentiment by saying, “Although depression is not a sin per se, it leads to the worst of sins.” Sing, dance, smile—do what it takes to put yourself in a place of joy!

Many of Rabbi Israel’s contemporaries were taken aback by his radical emphasis on happiness. They felt joy to be appropriate only after spiritual accomplishments. But if one was lacking—and aren’t we all lacking?—then joy might breed complacency. Nonetheless, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov maintained his commitment to its importance and its Jewishness.

In the latter part of the Book of Deuteronomy G‑d rebukes His people, saying as follows:

Because you did not serve G‑d, your G‑d, with joy and gladness of heart when you had an abundance of everything—you will serve your enemies whom G‑d will send against you . . . (Deuteronomy 28:47–48)

What is G‑d’s critique? Not that He wasn’t being served, but that He wasn't served with joy. It was a somber and listless service. Evidently G‑d did not only expect the joy that is an outgrowth of accomplishment, but the joy that is the beginning, the end and the very backbone of our contribution to G‑d’s world.

One fallacy that breeds depression is the sense that we need an external reason to be happyIn a country where almost 20 million of us suffer from depressive disorders, where the joke is that we’d all benefit from a little Prozac diluted in our city waters, happiness is a serious problem. Like any serious problem, its roots are incredibly complex, but perhaps one fallacy that breeds depression is the sense that we need an external reason to be happy. And even when we have a good reason to be happy, it too can quickly melt away into status quo and no longer give us that euphoric high.

Chassidic masters say that it’s imperative to have self-generated happiness. It’s our only shot at overcoming the constant struggles that we face in life. Personally, if I’m to have any chance of dealing with my children proactively and patiently, I need to feel upbeat. If I’m down, it’s a lost cause. Joy is the only emotional environment that is conducive to growth.

There have been many recent studies about the effect of positivity on the brain. Positive people were shown to have a broader scope of visual attention, and were more creative. Scientists at Cornell University experimented with physicians and found that when patients gave their physicians a small gift, they were better at integrating case information and less likely to become fixated on their initial ideas.

The commitment to live life with joy was given great emphasis during the Chassidic Revolution. And, like any of G‑d’s directives, it oftentimes takes tremendous commitment and self-discipline.

In 1988 the Rebbe said that the way to bring about the final global transformation and redemption is to increase in joy, with the intent of bringing the complete redemption. Just by being happy, we have power to break through our personal barriers and the barriers of exile.

Simply put—be happy. It will benefit you. It will benefit the world.

Based on Tanya, chapter 26, and the Rebbe’s talk on Shabbat Parshat Ki Teitzei 5748.