One of the inalienable rights enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence is the “Pursuit of Happiness.” It’s notable that the framers chose to word it as, “The pursuit of...” as opposed to just “happiness.” Why isn’t happiness itself a right, just like “life” and “liberty?” What’s this about “the pursuit”

I did a little digging and discovered that according to one professor,1 Jefferson’s use of the word “pursuit” wasn’t what it means today, as in “chasing” or “seeking.” Rather, it means something much closer to “obtaining” or “experiencing.” In other words, it is just like the other two rights: every person has a right to simply be happy, to experience happiness.

Which got me thinking. Of course, it’s a nice idea. That everyone is entitled to joy in their lives is probably something most people would agree with … but it’s just so hard! To live, and even to be free, is somewhat of a default state of being, particularly in contemporary times in the West, where cruel tyrants and bloody wars seem to be a thing of the past, thank G‑d.

But happiness? It sure is something to chase, but to claim everyone should simply “be happy” sounds a tad unrealistic. You want to try? Go right ahead. You want to just declare it? Ha!

Well, I’m here to argue that yes, we can declare it.

“Because You Weren’t Happy”

Our parshah contains one of the most terrifying and hair-raising collections of verses in the entire Torah. In what is known as the tochachah, “The Rebuke,” Moses tells the people that if they do not heed G‑d’s word in their new land, G‑d will mete out horrific punishments. For 45 verses, we read of such terrible things, that the prevailing custom in today’s synagogues is to read it in an undertone.

Amid the carnage, the Torah specifies what would lead to such a dismal outcome:

All these curses will befall you…because you did not serve the L‑rd, your G‑d, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything.2

What’s the core issue that warrants this torrent of tragedy?

“Because you didn’t serve G‑d with joy.”

This is problematic, to say the least.

Joy is an emotion. Happiness is an entire cottage (or not so cottage) industry, with millions of titles vying for the elusive secret to perpetual happiness. It’s not as if there’s some magical happiness switch that you can turn on at will. If you’re feeling it, great. If not, well, then, you’re just not happy.

Of course, if you’re a great tzadik, an extremely pious person on fire with your Judaism, then it’s relatively realistic to expect constant joy when serving G‑d.

But the Torah speaks to everyone. So, the thundering question is, how can the Torah expect everyone to be giddy about their chance to serve G‑d? What if I’m not? What if I’m not feeling it, or worse yet, there’s something actively blocking my relationship with my religion? What then? Does the Torah expect me to have that magical switch?

Think it into Being

The answer is, “Absolutely!”

The Kabbalistic masters discussed this at length, arguing that although it’s not necessarily easy to simply summon up an emotion such as joy, it’s eminently doable.

The argument is best understood by way of contrast: If you possess a natural, visceral connection to something, it’s easy to like it and be happy about it. Say you like baseball: it’s easy to be excited and genuinely happy about it, or enjoy the experience of watching a game, discussing it with fellow fans, or tossing a ball in your backyard.

That’s the easy part.

In the world of Kabbalah, the mystics explained, your soul—that spiritual spark inside you that is a literal piece of G‑d—possesses a natural inclination for the Divine. She just loves G‑d. As such, for those who are conscious of their soul and the spiritual energy she injects in their lives, serving G‑d with joy is easy. It’s a natural outgrowth of what they like.

But not everyone is like that. In fact, most people aren’t.

So what to do?

“Will it into existence!” the mystics urge. If you’re not excited about learning Torah or doing a mitzvah, then all you have to do is to think about it. Reflect on the fact that this is your opportunity to connect with G‑d and feel your soul.

That’s the amazing part about the human experience. Of course it’s easier to feel something naturally, but if that doesn’t work, you can absolutely drag your heart into it by thinking about it enough. You can choose to be happy about something, to get excited about it, and in due time, you’ll be happy and excited.

The Happiness Switch

What’s true about the soul’s efforts to get closer to G‑d is true about all of life’s experience. As mentioned, “The pursuit of happiness” (in today's understanding of those words) is an elusive thing, and at times seems downright impossible. Many simply have too much pressure to just “be happy.”

Yes, it’s not easy, and we must respect each person’s suffering and challenges.

The good news is that we humans were gifted with the capacity for choice. The ability to marshal our thoughts and weaponize them in an incredibly positive way. To meditate about something and convince ourselves that we want to be happy, that there really is cause for joy, and that regardless of whatever anyone says or does, “I’m going to be happy now!”

The Torah’s expectation that we be able to “serve G‑d with joy” at the flip of a hat is not a pie-in-the-sky demand or a laughable expectation, rather an empowering truth about the human condition: You can do this.

You’re down in the dumps? Life’s just too dark and nasty to fathom a smile or a cheerful moment?

It might very well be that bad. But that doesn’t take away the agency you have over your own happiness. Find a peaceful spot, think about something joyful, tell yourself, “I want to be happy right now, I don’t care what else is going on,” and for your sake, let it really be that way.